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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Researchers are calling for open and free access to U.S. court records and building an AI tool to analyze them.

Why it matters: Court records are publicly available but expensive to access and difficult to navigate. Freeing up that data — and using machine learning tools to make sense of it — would help make the justice system more just.

While records for Congress and executive agencies are free on the internet, federal courts charge $0.10 per printed page to view any record online.

  • That makes it difficult and costly for researchers, journalists and ordinary citizens to tap the raw data needed to understand the inner workings of the U.S. justice system.

What's new: In one example of the kind of analysis that could be possible with open access, researchers from Northwestern University used an algorithm to scan court records and determine how often judges granted waivers for the $400 fee required to file a federal lawsuit.

  • While there is no uniform standard for granting waivers, the researchers found unexpectedly huge variations. In one district, the approval rate varied from less than 20% for some judges to more than 80% for others.
  • With open access "we can get a fuller picture of what the systematic trends are and make it all easily accessible," says Adam Pah of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and Organizations and one of the co-authors of the study.

What's next: The Northwestern researchers are working on an AI-powered platform called SCALES-OKN that would make federal courtroom data accessible to the public and easily analyzable, linking data in the courts to information outside them.

  • Such a platform could be a potent tool for uncovering hidden bias over money or race in the justice system, says Pah.

The big picture: AI is already being used in the criminal justice system for policing and sentencing, but experts say it too often perpetuates a biased system. Unleashing AI on open court records could provide a welcome opportunity to use technology to further justice, not curtail it.

Go deeper: Coronavirus accelerates AI in health care

Go deeper

Updated Oct 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Appeals court says Trump must turn over tax records

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled in favor of a lower court decision that would force President Trump to comply with a subpoena from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance for eight years of his financial records.

What's next: Trump is expected to attempt appealing the decision in the Supreme Court, per the New York Times, although Vance has agreed to not enforce a subpoena for 12 days as long as the president's lawyers move quickly.

Pence attacks Harris for refusing to say whether Democrats would expand Supreme Court

Vice President Pence called out Sen. Kamala Harris at Wednesday's vice presidential debate for refusing to answer whether Democrats would add more justices to the Supreme Court if they win the White House and Senate.

Why it matters: A number of Democrats have proposed court packing as a response to Republicans rushing to confirm a conservative Supreme Court justice with less than a month until the election. Biden has previously said he opposes court packing, but has repeatedly ducked questions about it recent weeks — including at last week's presidential debate.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at 93

Walter Mondale, left, with former President Jimmy Carter in Jan. 2018 at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota's campus in Minneapolis. Photo: Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Walter Mondale, who transformed the role of U.S. vice president while serving under Jimmy Carter and was the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, died Monday at 93, according to a family spokesperson.

The big picture: President Biden, who was mentored by Mondale through the years, said in 2015 that the former vice president gave him a "roadmap" to successfully take on the job.