This site favors digitization. There are a number of benefits to digital records of course — decreased expense of acquisition and maintenance, increased ease of reproduction and use, etc. And legal records are perfect for digitization because even older records aren’t merely historical curiosities: the passage of time alone doesn’t make legal records obsolete.
Where does the digitization of legal records stand now? It depends on where you are and what type of records you’re talking about.
In Virginia’s federal courts, recent case records (including orders and opinions) are kept in electronic format and accessible through PACER/ECF, which is far from perfect but at least does make a lot of case information and documents available to anyone willing to register. (There are charges, which vary by court and type of record, and whether you actually must pay the charges incurred depends on your level of use.)
Virginia’s state courts are significantly behind the feds. A still small but growing number of circuit courts have embraced a system known as OCRA (Officer of the Court Remote Access), but OCRA has significant flaws. First, it is designed only for retrieval of things you already know about — you must look up specific cases to access records and can’t search by type of document, date range, judge, keyword, etc. Second, OCRA is available only to attorneys who pay for access to it. And third, even for those attorneys, circuit court clerks are imposing restrictive conditions on documents retrieved through OCRA. (More on that in a future post.)
Virginia’s appellate courts have a lot of case records in digital format, but they make them available to almost no one. Want a copy of a brief that was filed electronically in the Supreme Court of Virginia? Good luck — they don’t share electronic documents outside the Court, so you get to pay them $0.50 per page to print it out for you.
As for decisions, as noted on this site’s Judicial page, Virginia’s appellate courts publish their opinions online but not the official “reports” containing the final versions that can be cited. Only two Virginia circuit courts (Loudoun and Norfolk) make their opinions available online.
Of course, if you’re willing and able to pay, the floodgates open. WestLaw and LexisNexis have digitized vast quantities of legal records. All they demand in return is a bunch of money and your agreement to their conditions on use. Other repositories also exist, some of which are free and less restricted. But more can be done.
Copyright uncertainty and problems impedes republication of briefs. (More on that in a future post.) But those concerns don’t apply to opinions and orders, and we intend to push that point. We’ve decided to start with the Annual Reports of the Attorney General of Virginia.
The central content in those Annual Reports are the official opinions issued by the Attorney General (as discussed on this site’s Executive page). AG opinions can be an excellent resource on a wide variety of topics, especially if you’re interested in the workings of government, including many topics that don’t frequently become case law. (Pro tip: befriend a legislator — they can request an AG opinion on any topic.)
The OAG makes available reports from 2004-present (the latest at this writing being 2011). We’re going to help expand that set as time allows, beginning with 2001-03. Click over to the Executive page to get at them.