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Gathering data from PACER

I had someone ask on Facebook about getting some documents off of Pacer. I thought the information may be of use to other people out there.
PACER (public access to court electronic records) provides access to public documents filed in the Federal court system. Each court has their own website, but there is one login and the search and document display are the same. Documents cost 8 cents a page, capped at $2.40 for a single document.
Access to PACER isn’t always immediate. When I signed up there was a 7 – 10 day delay as usernames and passwords were sent by mail. There does seem to be a way now to get a password faster, for those of you who want data NOW!
Once you’ve got a username and password now you’re in business and can start digging up all these documents.
The first step is determining which court website to check. Generally, I’m looking for details because I saw a news report that does mention what court the case was filed in. So I just plug the court name (Northern District of California) in a search window and go from there. PACER also provides the facility to look up where a case is on their website. This wasn’t an option when I signed up for PACER so I’ve never used it, but it is there.
The court websites are often not very flashy (Web 0.5!) but there will be a link to retrieve documents or view documents through PACER. This is the link that will take you to the login page.  Put in your username and password and click go. If you’re not filing, you don’t need to bother with the checkbox for the Notice of Redaction Responsibility to get in, nor do you need to add a client code.
Once you’re logged in you’ll notice a blue bar across the top of the page. This is your (web 0.5!) navigation bar. Click on Query to bring up the case search window. If you have the actual case number, you can put that in the top box and hit search. Otherwise, you can enter in a party name. For my recent research, I just enter “holomaxx” in the box marked Last/Business Name and click Search. Being web 0.5! you have to actually click the button, pressing enter doesn’t work.
That will take you to the Select a Case window. In this case, Holomaxx is a safe search because it brings up exactly the two cases I’m interested in: Holomaxx v. Yahoo and Holomaxx v. Microsoft. Clicking on the case number brings up a window with some basic information (the judge, last filing date) and a number of links.
The link that will show you documents is, unsurprisingly, History/Documents. Click there, and click again on All events to bring up a list of documents filed with the court.
The first column is a clickable link that lets you look at the document. The second column is that date it was filed. The third column is the title of the document. Generally when I’m looking at a new case I grab something that looks like “complaint” or “motion” to orient myself.
When I’m looking at PACER I tend to download everything I look at on a case, just so I only have to pay for it once. I also make extensive use of tabs and new windows, so I don’t have to reload the case page.
Download names vary by the actual court. For instance, the Northern California court gives me all the documents with the same name: show-temp.pl. But other courts give names like 384972395.pdf. In either case, you’re going to want to rename the documents to something useful before you have a disk full of show-temp-*.pl files. In some cases, there are documents and exhibits in a single filing. You will be asked if you want to download everything as a .zip file. I suggest you do this.
For a while I was trying to name things intuitively but then gave up because it gets too confusing. My current organizational technique is to set up a directory with the case name HolomaxxvYahoo_4926 and HolomaxxvMS_4924. The numbers are the last 4 digits of the case number and are there to make it easier to file and sort documents.
If you download a zip file, it opens up a directory containing all the files. The courts name these pretty simply: documentnumber-main.pdf, documentnumber-1.pdf, documentnumber2.pdf. The document numbers correspond to the order the documents were filed with the court. Once the file is unzipped, I copy the files into the directory I’ve set up for that case.
Now that you have the documents somewhat organized, you can shut PACER down and go read at your leisure. If you spend more than $10.00 on documents in a quarter, then you will get a bill from the Federal court system. If you haven’t spent that much, the court doesn’t bother billing you that quarter.
Some state courts have similar systems, but not all of them do and you can’t use a PACER login to access them.
In the course of writing this, I discovered new documents filed in the Holomaxx case filed by the defenands. Tune in tomorrow. Same bat-time. Same bat-blog.

8 comments

  1. Joe Wagner says

    I think you would want to add that many Pacer documents are available for free via Recap, as a plugin for Firefox (see https://www.recapthelaw.org/):
    “RECAP is a free extension for Firefox that improves the experience of using PACER, the electronic public access system for the U.S. Federal District and Bankruptcy Courts. It:
    Helps you give back: Contributes to a public archive hosted by the Internet Archive
    Saves you money: Shows you when free documents are available
    Keeps you organized: Gives you better filenames, enables useful headers”

  2. John Levine says

    People should definitely use RECAP. The documents from PACER are free and public, so you’re only paying for the access to the proprietary court system. RECAP is building a free mirror at archive.org, so whenever you pull up a docket, RECAP will tell you which docs it already has so you can get them for free, and will automatically upload copies of any new ones you get.
    It also has some other nice tweaks, in particular renaming downloaded documents to something meaningful rather than show_temp.pl(37).

    1. laura says

      I don’t use Firefox, as a rule, so Recap appears unavailable. Otherwise, it sounds like a great thing.

  3. John Levine says

    FYI, I usually use Chrome, but RECAP is good enough that I spin up Firefox just to do the PACER work.

    1. laura says

      Yeah, John, I was thinking of doing the exact same thing.

  4. Shane Ramey says

    You don’t have to rename the file to PDF if you set the right MIME application. Here’s full instructions: http://www.shaneramey.com/programming/1-html/17-showtemppl-on-pacer-site-instead-of-pdf.html

  5. mary squire says

    yes i down loaded a file 22 pages a court case 8:12-cv-00690 and i need it sent to lowecommunityresourcepartners@live.com please help , i must get this file there please

    1. laura says

      If you downloaded the pdf, the easiest thing to do is mail it to the appropriate address.

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