Introduction

Ensuring public access to law is a fundamental obligation of our government. For centuries our courts have fulfilled this obligation by publishing and disseminating their written decisions in books. Today, books are no longer adequate to this task. In a modern world, ensuring public access to court decisions means publishing and distributing them online for free, without usage restrictions.

Below are guidelines for any state making the transition to digital-first publishing. Because each state court system has different challenges, constraints and opportunities, we expect to see different approaches emerge. The guidelines below recognize this need for flexibility. They outline a common, achievable standard, but they do not dictate particular means or methods.

For states administering their own digital-first publishing systems, these guidelines can inform that system’s priorities and design. For states that will rely on the software and/or services of a commercial vendor, these guidelines can help define an RFP and inform negotiations and contracting.

Digital-first publishing guidelines

Essential characteristics

Online

Court decisions should be issued and available online.

Free & Open

Court decisions should be accessible without charge and without restrictions on access or usage.

Comprehensive

All decisions should be made available digitally in the same fashion, using the same system. If a state distinguishes between precedential and non-precedential decisions, that distinction should not affect access.

Official

The digital versions of decisions should be the official versions.

Citable

The digital version should be citable in and by the courts of the relevant state, using vendor neutral citation formats.

Machine Readable

The decisions should be made available in machine readable formats, meaning at least digitally created PDFs.

Desirable characteristics

Digitally Signed

Decisions should be digitally signed by the issuing court to permit authentication.

Versioning

Decisions should be issued using a version control system that makes corrections easy for the courts and transparent to those relying on the decisions.

Structured Data

Decisions should be issued with accompanying metadata that describes, according to a publicly disclosed standard, key attributes of the decisions, such as case name, citation, court name, attorneys, participating judges and authoring judge.

Medium-Neutral

Decisions should include paragraph-numbering and avoid page-dependency.

Archives

Decisions should be preserved, and the archives should be made available online.

Decisions should be searchable using keywords and metadata fields.

Bulk

Decisions should be downloadable in bulk.

API

Decisions should be accessible to any programmer via a public, documented API (Application Programming Interface).

For questions and discussion, please contact us!