Oyez Opening Appellate Courts: Knight Foundation Winner

Today the Knight Foundation News Challenge awarded more than $3 million dollars to civic innovators for government good. One of the winners was The Oyez Project, recipient of $600,000 for opening appellate courts information. According to tech.co, “now 20 years old, the project will use the funding to expand from Supreme Court cases to state supreme and federal appellate courts.

Open government initiatives tend to focus on the executive and legislative branches, but America’s third branch remains an opaque frontier. This project confronts the challenge of appellate court transparency by building on a proven model.”

From the Knight News Challenge Open Government website:

The problem: Thanks in large part to the efforts of open government projects, the public today has more data about the activities of America’s legislatures and bureaucracies than ever before. The benefits are plain: The barriers to civic engagement and social science inquiry have been lowered, resulting in greater awareness of and interaction with government institutions. But the judiciary — the branch of government most designed to interact with citizens, resolve disputes, and redress grievances — still obscures most of its activities from public view. Citizens and journalists seeking to pierce the veil of the courts confront daunting obstacles to access and understanding, and social and computer scientists studying the system must sink much of their resources into gaining access to and reformatting the limited data that is available. Even the lawyers and judges who operate within the system must rely on fee-based access to proprietary collections of these public documents.

About Oyez: Since 1997, the Oyez Project  has worked to open access to America’s justice system at its pinnacle – the Supreme Court of the United States. In addition to case details, plain English summaries, decision information, and opinions, the project provides free access to audio recordings and transcripts of 10,000+ hours of arguments and opinion announcements in the Court since 1955, when the Court started recording its public sessions. Built with $2+ million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Google, and others, Oyez now delivers its vast collection to 7.5 million annual website visitors and to tens of thousands of mobile app users.

Our solution: Building on our success at the Supreme Court, we shall extend the Oyez model to the next level of the American judiciary: the intermediate federal appellate and state supreme courts. Our first target will be the supreme courts of the five largest states, serving over one-third of the American public (CA, FL, IL, NY, TX). In each jurisdiction, we will work with the court to collect its documents and media, catalog the materials, and reformat them into open standards equally suitable for general consumption and deeper research. Then, partnering with academic or other public-spirited institutions in each jurisdiction, we will annotate the materials, adding metadata and plain English summaries that make the content accessible and usable for a non-legal audience. The collection will be made available online and through mobile apps. Furthering our existing model, users will be able to query the database, download or share the bits they’re interested in, and freely repurpose the content. In a future iteration of this project that includes the intermediate federal appellate courts, we also intend to collaborate with the RECAP project and integrate with that vast collection of documents. The six high courts in the five states (Texas has separate appellate courts for civil and criminal appeals) produce about 800 full opinions each year. We estimate that these courts have generated 15,000-20,000 opinions in the last twenty years. We expect to obtain a complete collection of opinions; access to the written arguments of the parties (the briefs) and oral argument audio and/or video will vary from court to court. We will identify the most important cases (for example, the ones seeking U.S. Supreme Court review) for more extensive research and comment. As an initial step towards adding plain English clarity to the materials, we will draw on and integrate with the work of other projects like The State Decoded and Justia’s summaries of recent cases. Finally, with cooperation from the candidate courts, we will create a 360-degree online tour of the court building to provide an insider’s perspective.  Our U.S. Supreme Court tour can be found here. We aim to produce six tightly integrated websites, together integrated with oyez.org, and a companion mobile app for iOS and Android devices.

Why we’re different: Aside from our own efforts at the U.S. Supreme Court and in Washington State, we know of no projects focused solely on informing the public as to the work of state supreme courts or intermediate federal appellate courts. All state supreme courts have websites, but these tend to serve the needs of their respective clients (judges, clerks, other court personnel, practicing attorneys, etc.). The sites tend to be a jumble of disconnected information as viewed by the general public, and provide little if any explanation that would help unravel the legal issues for average Americans. And we know of no mobile apps delivering understandable court content to the public. In essence, courts serve court needs and minimize or ignore public needs.”


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