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Federal Court Libraries Preserving Internet Citations in Opinions

It’s a rare Internet user that has not experienced the frustration of a bad web link. Nothing is more frustrating than coming across a link that leads nowhere. This “link rot” occurs over time as information is removed from web sites or moved to another online location. Unfortunately, the original URL remains the same in the referencing document – and the user goes without. The inability to obtain online information referenced in a court opinion, however, goes beyond mere inconvenience as the information cited could be critical to the holding and important to judges and attorneys in considering other cases.

Since 2007, federal court libraries have been tracking citations to online resources and preserving original documents and web pages as .pdf files. This project was created by the Library of the U.S. Courts of the Seventh Circuit in 2007 and was quickly implemented by most of the other Circuit Library programs (the final circuit library to implement the program, the Sixth, will begin capturing and archiving URLs cited in opinions this year).

Each Circuit Library does various levels of capture but, at a minimum, Internet citations are captured as cited in the respective Court of Appeals opinion as it is released and archived either to a web site or posted in the docket with the opinion in the courts’ case management/electronic file system (CM/ECF) and the federal judiciary’s PACER system. The Seventh Circuit Library began this project in January of 2007 when a district court law clerk experienced a link rot issue in a Seventh Circuit opinion. The Library has archived links from all Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals cases which cite an Internet address since that date.

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In addition, the Library also archives URLs from opinions of the district courts located within the Seventh Circuit (not all Circuit Libraries are currently archiving district court opinions). Using the URL in the opinion, the Library saves a digital archival copy and adds a watermark indicating the date the archived copy was made. The opinions are arranged in docket number order and the reporter citation is added (when available). The Library posts the information to both an internal database for judges and law clerks and an external site for the public.  

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In addition to posting the archived URLs on web sites, eight of the Circuit Libraries are also adding the documents to the official case docket and PACER (the DC , First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits). An example:  

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The Seventh Circuit Library began adding the documents to CM/ECF and PACER in 2016 and will also continue to post the documents to an external web site so that public users will not have to access PACER in order to retrieve the citations. Users can expect federal court libraries to continue to preserve and make accessible Internet documents cited by federal courts and for federal court libraries to expand the program to include citations in district court opinions.

The Library of the U.S. Courts of the Seventh Circuit currently archives those documents from all the district courts located in the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) on its website. Other Circuit Libraries also have included district court opinions in their archive projects. The next step is to ensure those documents are also added to the official electronic docket with the opinions. The Sixth Circuit has plans to begin archiving the URLs cited in that court’s opinions so that, by the end of this year, every federal court of appeals will be covered. For further information on each Circuit Library program, check out the Circuit Library’s web site or give them a call. A complete listing of federal court web sites is available at www.uscourts.gov.

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