Appellate Court Web Sites: Some Are Excellent, But Many Others Could Easily Be Improved
By Howard J. Bashman
Monday, Feb 10, 2003

Federal and state appellate courts have embraced the Internet. The Supreme Court of the United States and all U.S. Courts of Appeals have official Web sites, and that also holds true for most every state appellate court system. But while federal and state appellate courts have not hesitated to establish a presence on the Web, the quality of the features that those Web sites offer varies widely.

This month's column discusses in descending order of importance the features that appellate court Web sites should offer. Before concluding, I mention some of the best and worst appellate Web sites now in existence.

Features that an appellate court Web site should offer
1. Access to the court's opinions. Nearly every federal and state appellate court Web site offers easy access to the appellate court's recent precedential opinions. One noteworthy exception is the Web site of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which makes it next to impossible to access online that court's opinions.

I prefer appellate court Web sites that provide opinions in PDF format, which allows the online version to look exactly like the printed pamphlets in which the courts issue their opinions to the parties and the public. The U.S. Supreme Court posts its opinions online in this format, as do numerous federal appellate courts. Other users of appellate court Web sites prefer being able to access opinions in HTML format. Several federal appellate court Web sites - the First and Tenth Circuits, for example - provide access to opinions in both HTML and PDF format.

Other appellate court Web sites -- particularly state appellate court sites -- make opinions available online only in Microsoft Word format. Those opinions are not easily accessible through a Web browser and can be inaccessible to users whose computers run operating systems other than Microsoft Windows.

In my view, appellate court Web sites should post online not only precedential but also non-precedential opinions. Many federal appellate court Web sites already do so, and a federal law passed last year - Section 205 of the E-Government Act of 2002 - requires that all federal appellate court Web sites post both published and unpublished rulings online starting sometime within the next two to three years.

The Eighth Circuit's Web site is to be applauded for posting a summary of each opinion along with a link to it. The Supreme Court of California's Web site goes one step further, providing a preview that lists the cases in which opinions will issue the next day and the questions presented in those cases.

Some appellate court Web sites -- for example, the Tenth Circuit's site -- only offer opinions online for the first ninety days after issuance. Other sites -- including the Third Circuit's -- issue opinions bearing a Web address that changes when the opinion is moved into the Web site's opinion archive. Because the archive address works from day one, the opinions should bear that address from the outset.

The Eighth Circuit has what is probably one of the best search engines for finding opinions. You can search by name of the authoring judge or dissenting judge, and you can search for words in the opinion or the case summary. I also have come to appreciate the usefulness of the online search engines that the Fifth and Ninth Circuits provide, even though they lack some of the bells and whistles present at the Eighth Circuit's Web site.

2. Access to the appellate court's rules, procedures, and forms. Most every federal and state appellate court Web site provides online access to the court's rules of procedure and practice. Some sites provide rules as a single lengthy document, while others allow for individual rules to be accessed separately. While most courts are already making their rules available online, many can make the rules easier to locate from the court's main page.

Attorneys who handle appeals infrequently may find an appellate court's rules governing the briefing process difficult to understand in the abstract. The most helpful appellate court Web sites provide checklists of briefing requirements. Some courts even provide explanatory guides or examples of briefs and appendices that meet the appellate court's rules and requirements.

Appellate courts should also provide online access to forms that attorneys likely will need to file during an appeal. The Third Circuit makes available at its Web site a very comprehensive collection of forms and serves as a good example of what all appellate courts ought to do.

3. Access to appellate docket entries. One of the greatest services that an appellate court's Web site can provide is free and easy access to the docket entries in the cases pending before the court. The U.S. Supreme Court and many state appellate courts make online docket access available. Unfortunately, several years ago the Judicial Conference of the United States - the governing body of the federal judicial system - adopted a rule that requires U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. District Courts to charge a fee for docket access of seven cents per page. While that fee may seem paltry, users cannot access online dockets unless they have an account to which those charges can be billed.

As a result, many lawyers and members of the public cannot take advantage of the ease of access that online docket entries provide. Instead, these users need to pick up the phone and call the federal court's staff to learn what the court's online docket reflects. One notable exception is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which has elected not to charge any fee for online access to its docket. As a consequence, the Seventh Circuit receives relatively less financial support from the U.S. Courts system than do other lower federal courts, but in exchange earns the unending gratitude of online appellate practitioners and pro se litigants everywhere.

4. Telephone and address contact information, and directions to the Court. Appellate court Web sites are exceptionally easy to find online via Google or most other search engines. As a result, many lawyers and pro se litigants visit an appellate court's Web site first, before picking up the telephone to call an appellate court's clerk's office with a question. But no matter how much information an appellate court's Web site provides, there will always be instances when the answer is not there or cannot easily be found. Thus, an appellate court's Web site should provide a list of telephone numbers and addresses of employees who are available to answer case-related questions from lawyers and the public. Also, an appellate court's Web sites should provide driving, parking, and mass transit instructions for the court's location(s).

5. Information about the appellate judges serving on the court. Most every appellate court Web site provides at least a list, often in seniority order, of the judges serving on the court. But much more useful than a simple list of names is a page that provides each judge's biography and photograph. Many state appellate court Web sites provide this information. The Second and Fifth Circuits provide biographical information about their judges, but no photos, at their Web sites. The Ninth Circuit, by contrast, boasts the largest number of judges serving on any single federal appellate court and yet has a Web site that makes it nearly impossible to determine in which city and state its various judges are based.

6. A listing of oral argument dates, the cases to be argued on those dates, and the judges who will be hearing the arguments. Some appellate court Web sites provide this information, but many do not. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania posts an entire calendar year's worth of oral argument dates along with the judges who have been assigned to hear argument at each session throughout the year.

Other courts are a bit more reluctant to release far in advance the names of the judges who will be hearing arguments on a given day. The Third Circuit, for example, does not release the identities of the judges who will be hearing oral argument on a given day until about two weeks in advance of an argument. But once that information is available, the Third Circuit usually posts it online.

7. Extra goodies that appellate court Web sites can (and some already do) offer. Both the Seventh and Eighth Circuits, at their Web sites, provide access to the full text of appellate briefs filed with the court and to audiotapes of appellate oral arguments. An employee of the Eighth Circuit has told me that approximately 1,000 users listen online to that court's oral arguments each month. The U.S. Supreme Court makes written transcripts of its oral arguments available online, and the Supreme Court of Florida provides live and archived video access to its oral arguments.

Some appellate court Web sites allow users to sign-up for email notification of docket activity in an appeal, or for email notification of an opinion's issuance. I have received email notification of rulings in appeals where I represented parties, and it is nice to know immediately when the result is good news. If the email brings not so good news, at least you learn that much sooner in advance of the deadline for reconsideration or appeal to a higher court.

In the future, more appellate courts may begin using RSS/XML feeds, which allow Web users to receive updates from countless Web sites with the press of a single button. The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia already provides this feature.

Last but not least, once an appellate court has made available over the Web all the content that appellate lawyers and the general public require to interact with the court, then the court should consider posting interesting historical information about itself, its former judges, and its courthouses.

The best and worst appellate court Web sites of 2003
The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh and Eighth Circuits operate the two best federal appellate court Web sites currently in existence. The Eighth Circuit is to be applauded because it has a wonderful search feature, it makes all opinions -- published and unpublished -- available, and it provides access to briefs and oral argument audiotapes. The Seventh Circuit offers most of those features too, but no access unpublished opinions. Yet the Seventh Circuit's site makes up for the lack of access to unpublished opinions by providing free access to docket entries and a whole bunch of helpful guides, including one that recommends the best typefaces to use in appellate briefs.

The award for worst federal appellate court Web site goes to the Eleventh Circuit, at least until that court finds a way to make its opinions easily available online as every other federal appellate court long ago managed to do. True, the Eleventh Circuit's Web site looks quite nice, but content is king.

I have not visited enough state appellate court Web sites to announce with confidence which are the best and the worst. But I can recommend without hesitation three that are very, very good. Those are the Web sites of the Supreme Court of Florida, the Supreme Court of North Dakota, and the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. These three state appellate court Web sites give the best federal appellate court Web sites a run for their money.

This article is reprinted with permission from the February 10, 2003 issue of The Legal Intelligencer 2003 NLP IP Company.



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