The most important legal information in the nation is not publicly available.

State courts are arguably the most important courts in the nation.  They hear more cases than federal courts by far.  And very few state court cases are appealed.  Even when cases are appealed, the reversal rate is low–around 7% in Utah. This means state courts decide the vast majority of the legal issues around the country.  Information about how state court judges make decisions–what motions they grant, what arguments they like, etc–is vital.  People pay hundreds of dollars an hour for a lawyer who knows the tendencies of a specific judge.  If you can’t afford a lawyer, good luck.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Data about state court judges exists.  But states purposefully make the information inaccessible.  A few months ago, I tried to find where Utah stores its state court filings.  Utah courts require that parties file documents electronically, so I suspected there was a database with this information.  And I was right.  The database is called XChange and it holds every Utah state court filing from 2010 to the present.  Every motion and every order from every state court case since 2010.

Screenshot 2017-04-27 22.51.37

The information in XChange, however, is impossible to access in mass.  XChange only lets you search by case number or party name, one number/name at a time.  Frustrated with this search process, I called XChange to see if they would give me the data.  They refused.  I offered to buy the data.  They also refused.

Undeterred, I searched for a workaround.  I figured out how Utah cases are numbered.  And I spoke with a software engineer friend about scrapping the data from the site by (1) opening an account, (2) using a software to enter case numbers nonstop, and (3) downloading every filing from each case.  XChange’s terms of use, however, prohibit (1) searching more than 10 cases per day and (2) using software to crawl the site.  In other words, XChange anticipated that someone like me would try to access the data in mass.  And they prohibit it.

Why would XChange purposefully make the most valuable legal information in Utah inaccessible?  Information about federal judges is widely available.  Same for state appellate and supreme court judges.  Their opinions are on Westlaw, Lexis, and Ravel.  You can even download the corpus of federal and appellate case law directly to your computer.  State court opinions, however, are stuck behind services like XChange.

This should change.  Making state court filings accessible to the public would be a significant public service.  Litigants could research their case and judge in new and exciting ways.

We are considering making this one of our first projects.  Creating a database that is searchable like Westlaw or Google Scholar is not difficult if you have access to the underlying documents.  The obstacle in this instance is convincing XChange to let us use the data.  A tall order.

We would love your thoughts and suggestions.  If you have any, please comment below.

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One thought on “The most important legal information in the nation is not publicly available.

  1. This would be a terrific public service that I would like to see available in all 50 states. This works the same way in Washington state, where you can only search by name or case number. No way for people to search by type of case, or by judge, or anything else. And you also need to either pay a subscription fee to read case records remotely, or come to the courthouse to do it there. Not very user friendly.

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