Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2011
Web Watching:
New Ways to Keep Up with the Federal Courts
By Robert J. Ambrogi

Supreme Court watchers usually set their sights on the first Monday in October — the start of the new term. This year, however, many court watchers on the web were focused on the last Monday in September. On that day, the preeminent Supreme Court blog, SCOTUSblog, unveiled a new look, new features and a noteworthy new direction.

In this month’s column, we will look at the changes to SCOTUSblog and also tell you about three new websites that will help you follow the federal courts online.

Changes to SCOTUSblog
SCOTUSblog, www.scotusblog.com, has long stood out to me as among the best of the legal blogs. Since its launch in October 2002, it has established itself as the definitive and authoritative resource for all things Supreme Court. It tracks the court from all angles, providing news reports, in-depth analysis, case files, court calendars and statistics.

All this is done with a roster of contributors that includes practitioners, academics, journalists and others. And although the founder and publisher of SCOTUSblog, Thomas C. Goldstein, has a practice that focuses on Supreme Court and appellate advocacy, the blog never seems like a marketing vehicle but always remains focused on its core mission of providing useful information.

In fact, as the blog has evolved over the years, it has reached the point of becoming a serious and — dare I say — “mainstream” news site. This is especially so since it brought aboard as a contributor Lyle Denniston, a veteran and insightful legal journalist who has covered the Supreme Court for more than 50 years.

Thus it was notable when, on Sept. 26, SCOTUSblog announced that Bloomberg Law, www.bloomberglaw.com, the legal research platform of the Bloomberg financial and business news network, would become its exclusive sponsor. “Bloomberg Law will support SCOTUSblog’s mission to provide independent, complimentary and high-quality coverage of issues pertaining to the court and allow the site to expand the wide-ranging, unbiased content created by its respected staff and contributors,” said a press release.

With Bloomberg’s sponsorship, the blog will now have four full-time staff in addition to its roster of regular contributors. Amy Howe, Goldstein’s law partner and wife and a long-time contributor to the blog, will become its full-time editor. Former Wall Street Journal Supreme Court reporter Stephen Wermiel, now a fellow in law and government at Washington College of Law, will become a regular columnist.

Along with these organizational changes comes a major redesign of the blog — its fourth complete overhaul since its launch. Just a year ago, SCOTUSblog unveiled a major redesign in which it moved away from the traditional blog format of presenting posts in reverse-chronological order. Now it has returned to that format while making other design changes intended to highlight its various types of content and to better integrate with social media.

Another new feature is the SCOTUSblog Community. Essentially, it is a discussion board, but the blog’s editors pick a new topic each day and that topic remains open for a week. Anyone can contribute, but registration will be required and discussions will be moderated to prevent “uncivil discourse.”

I believe that Bloomberg’s sponsorship will prove to be a benefit to readers of SCOTUSblog. To the extent that the blog has become a core source for Supreme Court news, it will be able to devote more staff and resources to that task, which can only make it all that much better. And this new sponsor is, itself, a professional, global news organization, one that already has a strong legal news component.

Of course, it is also a smart move for Bloomberg Law, which has been jockeying for a share of the legal research space dominated by Westlaw and LexisNexis. Not only will it enhance Bloomberg Law’s visibility and authenticity as a legal research provider, but it could also help it gain access to authors and content it needs to help fill out its libraries of secondary materials such as treatises and practice guides — an area where Bloomberg still falls short of its two major competitors.

New Sites for Court Followers
While SCOTUSblog may reign supreme as a resource for tracking the court, another relatively new site, The Cert Pool, http://certpool.com, also aims to do that, but on a far more modest level. Still early in its development, the site is notable for providing several unique perspectives on the Supreme Court’s docket. It shows:

Active petitions listed by circuit or state, so you can see cases that have come out of Connecticut, say, or the 3rd Circuit.

Active cases that have drawn calls for the view of the solicitor general.

Amicus appearances, either just at the cert stage or overall.

Direct appeals pending from three-judge courts.

And, just for fun, a “Quick Link” displays all cases that originated from near you. It picks up on where you are and shows all cases from your state or circuit pending at the court.

The site is the creation of Don Cruse, a Texas appellate lawyer who previously built DocketDB, http://docketdb.com, a site that tracks the cases and docket of the Texas Supreme Court, and who writes The Supreme Court of Texas Blog, http://www.scotxblog.com, a sort-of SCOTUSblog for the Lone Star State.

Pentagon Site Covers Guantanamo Trials
In September, the Department of Defense launched a website, Military Commissions, http://www.mc.mil, devoted to coverage of trials by the military courts in operation at Guantanamo to try accused terrorists. Notably, the site allows users to view and download documents and court filings from the commission cases against specific individuals and to obtain summaries of the charges against them.

The site also provides a description of military commissions and how they work. It includes an interesting chart that compares the rules and procedures in military commissions with those in courts-martial and Article III courts. There is also a collection of significant court opinions relating to military commissions and of current and historical documents pertaining to the commissions. There is even a section providing details on travel to Guantanamo Bay.

The Pentagon created the site, it says, to help “provide fair and transparent trials of those persons subject to trial by Military Commissions while protecting national security interests.”

Free PACER Training Site
Like it or not, the one indispensable source for keeping up with cases in the federal courts is PACER,www.pacer.gov, the online service that provides public access to case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts. Unfortunately, PACER is not free — in fact, the Judicial Conference just approved a fee increase that will take effect on April 1, 2012. For the novice or rusty user, learning PACER’s ropes can add up to a sizeable chunk of fees.

It is welcome news, therefore, that PACER has now created a free training site, https://dcecf.psc.uscourts.gov. No registration is required and no fees are charged. The site includes data from real cases filed in the New York Western District between Jan. 1 and July 1, 2007. The site lets users become acquainted with how the system works and the types of information available. New users should also download the PACER User Manual, http://www.pacer.gov/documents/pacermanual.pdf.

Needless to say, these sites are just a few of the many excellent resources available online for following the courts. As longstanding sites such as SCOTUSblog continue to evolve and new sites such as The Cert Pool make their debuts, the task of legal research grows ever easier.

Robert Ambrogi, who practices law in Rockport, Mass., is the former editor of
National Law Journal and Lawyers Weekly USA. He is internationally known for his writing about the Internet and technology. He is the author of three blogs, which can be read at www.legaline.com.

© 2011 Robert Ambrogi

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