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Indiana Legislature Passes Public Access Bill

March 26th, 2012 by

The 2012 lndiana legislative session is now completed. The Republican majority in the legislature mainly focused on their hot agenda items, including successfully passing Right to Work legislation. However, they did pass a bill to improve access to information by putting some teeth into requests for access to public records.

HB1003 Public Access Issues attempts to assure access by the public to meetings conducted electronically, and also assesses a fine to public officials who deny requests for access to public records. Citizens will not be denied access to these records if:

  • They have contacted the state public access counselor
  • The public access counselor has issued an advisory opinion that instructs the agency to allow access to the public record.

This issue has been before the legislature in various forms for several years without passage. This is the first time that personal penalties will be imposed for breaking the law. Hopefully, this will strengthen open records and open meeting laws already on the books.

“Statistical Abstract” Resurrected By ProQuest & Bernan

March 26th, 2012 by

The U.S. Census Bureau, responsible for publishing the Statistical Abstract of the United States (Stats Abstract), announced in March 2011 that it would cease production of the Statistical Abstract after the 2012 edition, ( see Statistical Abstract of U.S. Going Away ? )

It had functioned as both  as an answer book and source guide. It had been used by librarians and public patrons for generations to help answer a myriad of statistical inquiries with both government and privately gathered data. Even with widespread lobbying by users and librarians, the Census Bureau said it would not continue the Stats Abstract  “due both to substantial budgetary constraints and the need to prioritize several new data gathering endeavors.” While  government budgets are indeed tight, one wonders why such a valuable information tool would not also be considered a priority.

Sometimes  private sector publishers have take over previously free government titles which they turn into commercial products that former users must then pay for access to. In the late 1990s several government publications became privatized including : “Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism”, “Handbook of Labor Statistics”, “Business Statistics of the United States”,  “Journal of the National Cancer Institute” and  “U.S. Industrial Outlook” . ( See Robert Oakley, Testimony Regarding S. 2288, The Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Reform Act Of 1998)

However, in this case, two private sector actors have come to the rescue of a valuable publication that the government has just chosen not to continue providing ! A fortuitous reversal of some past practices by private publishers.

ProQuest, Ann Arbor, Michigan-based electronic publisher and microfilm publisher and Bernan, leading distributor of essential government publications and publisher of reference works based on government data, have partnered to bring back the venerable “Statistical Abstract of the United States”, as a print and an online product. This partnership will ensure the continuation of a the premier reference source that was fist published in 1878.

The new commercial Stats Abstract volume will be an 8.5 x 11 in. hardcover and will contain approximately the same number of tables as previous government editions. Libraries around the country have a spot ready for the 2013 edition.

The considerable staff of statistical editors at ProQuest will handling the production of the online version of the Stats Abstract. According to the press release, “The digital version will include monthly updates to tables, deep searching at the line-item level, powerful facets for narrowing search results, image and spreadsheet versions of all current and historical tables, along with links to provider sites.” This is an advance over the format of the previous government online versions which are PDF reproductions of the print version.

Congratulations to ProQuest and Bernan for not only seizing a business opportunity but also serving the information needs of countless citizens who were left “high and dry” by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Regulation.gov” Improves Reviewing & Commenting On Proposed Federal Regs

February 29th, 2012 by

Rulemaking is the policy-making process for Executive and Independent agencies of the Federal government. Agencies use this process to develop and issue new regulations.

The recently redesigned ” regulations.gov ” website has made changes that facilitate the ability of any member of the public to comment on federal government regulations proposed by executive agencies. These changes are in furtherance of  the mandates contained in  presidential executive orders .

Executive Order 12866, “Regulatory Planning and Review,” issued by President Clinton on September 30, 1993,  instructs   “…each agency should afford the public a meaningful opportunity to comment on any proposed regulation, which in most cases should include a comment period of not less than 60 days.”

Executive Order 13563, Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review , issued on January 18, 2011 by  President Obama,  directs agencies   “To promote that open exchange, each agency, consistent with Executive Order 12866 and other applicable legal requirements, shall endeavor to provide the public with an opportunity to participate in the regulatory process. To the extent feasible and permitted by law, each agency shall afford the public a meaningful opportunity to comment through the Internet on any proposed regulation, with a comment period that should generally be at least 60 days ”

To further these requirements the new site attempts to :

• Enhance the ability of the public to submit and review comments on all supporting scientific and technical documents of the rulemaking docket

• Increase public participation in the regulatory process with easier navigation, improved search and social media links to share regulatory information with others

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It includes features to help users understand the regulatory process, under the “Learn Tab”. Easy access to searching by keyword and finding regulations with comments due soon and newly posted regulations are provided under the “Search Tab” . This tab also has  Improved layout of  search results, filters and  a document spotlight.  The New “‘Browse Tab”, features regulations grouped in 10 industry-related Categories and also provides for Browsing by hundreds of topics.

Integrated social media tools like “Regulations.gov Facebook” and a  revitalized Twitter page will help educate users and  allow the public to offer input on Regulations.gov features.

New PACER Training Web Page Made Available

November 28th, 2011 by

Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an online service of the United States Judiciary that provides case and docket information from Federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts. While the growth of PACER accounts appears to be very robust based on the findings of the “United States Courts Electronic Public Access Program – PACER Service Assessment (Sept. 2010).

PACER management appears to be doing more marketing and outreach recently. It is unclear whether this might be a response to re-occuring criticism that the Judiciary keeps much of their “public” information behind what is termed a “paywall”. Or the occassional inquiries from the likes of Senator Lieberman about how the PACER generated funds are being spent. See:

Lieberman: Why Do We Have to Pay for PACER?

DOJ Pays $4M a Year to Read Public Court Documents

Use RECAP To Bypass Court Document PACER Paywall

Perhaps just like any entity that sells a service, PACER may just want to increase the usability of their service and expand its use into new markets ? Another graph from the PACER assessment about user constiuencies can be instructive.

While 75% of the users are lawyers and litigants, there are some other sectors that could be making greater use of the service. Several of the other sectors identified as 5% or less, could probably be grown by a more user -friendly site, expanded marketing, and accessible training for  PACER.

The Office of the US Courts appears to me moving on all these fronts :

• Released the Case Locator, formerly the U.S.
Party/Case Index (March 2010)
• Increased the fee waiver to $10 per quarter
(March 2010)
• Redesigned the PACER website, pacer.gov
(May 2010)

And most recently have introduced a web site that provides basic orientation and training for PACER, using a subset of actual court filings for users to work with.

PACER Training Site (District Court CM/ECF Version 4.2) – Document Filing System

“Welcome to the PACER training site. Use this site to learn how to use PACER. The site is free of charge and has been populated with real case data from New York Western District Court from cases filed between 1/1/2007 and 7/1/2007.”


The page provides suggested searches to try using the tabbed functions at the top of the page. Exeprimenting with the results from the training subset can orient a new user to the PACER interface.

It is also suggested that potential users download the “PACER Service Center User Manual” to familiarize themselves with the service.

 

Historians’ Law Suit Gets Release of Nixon Grand Jury Files

November 15th, 2011 by

  In the federal court case, of In Re Petition of Stanley Kutler, et al’, filed by Stanley Kutler, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists, the Court was asked to unseal the transcripts of President Richard M. Nixon’s grand jury testimony during June 23 and 24, 1975.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) press release, the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) had decided that it  was necessary to question former President Richard M. Nixon in connection with various investigations being conducted by  the Special prosecutor at the time. According to courts documents, the agreement to take President Nixon’s testimony in connection with its open investigations, was conducted in a manner that would avoid litigation over such issues as executive privilege.

“On June 23 and 24, 1975, President Nixon testified for eleven hours before two members of the grand jury and several WSPF attorneys. Afterward, a full transcript of the proceeding was read to the remaining members of the grand jury in Washington, DC.”

Traditionaly grand jury testimony is to remain secret. But the rule of grand jury secrecy is not without exceptions. After considering several factors raised by the petitioners and the government, the judge decided that “Taken together, the Court finds that the relevant factors weigh in favor of unsealing President Nixon’s grand jury testimony and the WSPF’s associated materials, subject to NARA’s review procedures. The special circumstances presented here—namely, undisputed historical interest in the requested records—far outweigh the need to maintain the secrecy of the records. The Court is confident that disclosure will greatly benefit the public and its understanding of Watergate without compromising the tradition and objectives of grand jury secrecy”.

As a result of this ruling, the National Archives has opened 26 files from its Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) collection including transcripts of President Nixon’s grand jury testimony of June 23-24, 1975. There are some redactions made for the privacy of still-living persons and for national security.

The materials may be obtained at the following websites:

Government Printing Office (GPO)
Scribd
Our Archives – Wiki

RECAP the Law

August 6th, 2010 by

It is AALL policy that information on government Web sites must be accessible to all people and available without charge, which includes no-fee public access to PACER.  PACER stands for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records”) and is the website the federal court system uses to make its public records (complaints, briefs, motions, etc.) available to the general public. However, PACER charges users significant fees to download documents from PACER, even though the information is in the public domain. Although the site is available to the general public, it is difficult to navigate and is therefore used mostly by attorneys and other trained legal researchers (like law librarians!).

Until the federal government makes a commitment to free public access to federal court documents, we have RECAP, a project developed by the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) at Princeton University.  According to the CITP:

RECAP is an extension (or “add on”) for the Firefox web browser that improves the PACER experience while helping PACER users build a free and open repository of public court records. RECAP users automatically donate the documents they purchase from PACER into a public repository hosted by the Internet Archive. And RECAP saves users money by alerting them when a document they are searching for is already available from this repository. RECAP also makes other enhancements to the PACER experience, including more user-friendly file names.

There is a more detailed description on the RECAP site, as well as a cool video of how it works.

Recently, the CITP made significant improvements to RECAP, most importantly adding search functionality.  At the RECAP Archive, you can search all of the documents that have been gathered by the RECAP Firefox extension. There are simple and advanced search options, and the latter allows you to narrow by court, date, docket number, and so on. All absolutely free of charge. Your results will include the full docket sheet for a case, alerting and allowing you to acquire any documents that are on PACER, but not yet included in RECAP.

Other cool features are the option to set up an RSS feed or e-mail alert for your search so that you can track a particular case. The system also allows you to add tags and connect related cases.

If you are a PACER user, I strongly encourage you to download RECAP so that you can add more documents to the database. If you are looking for court filings, check RECAP and you might save yourself some money.