to help open
widely to the
For most of the history of the court system, paper files
have been locked away in room after room of dusty cabinets.
J. Rich Leonard ’ 71 has spent a good part of his career
trying to change that situation.
For his efforts, Leonard, now a judge in the U.S.
Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North
Carolina, has received the Robert B. Yegge Award from the
American Bar Association, recognizing his long and continuing role advocating for and implementing electronic access
to court documents and proceedings.
After law school at Yale, Leonard — who also earned a
master’s in education from UNC in 1973 — landed a job
working for federal judge Franklin Taylor Dupree Jr. ’ 33 (’ 36
LLB). “I was a young guy, and I had my own federal court,”
Leonard recalls feeling at the time. “First, we put manual sys-
tems into place. Then, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, we began
to get our first wave of computers. It was revolutionary, the
idea that there wasn’t just one paper file that only one per-
son can look at at a time.”
Copiers made it possible to bring documents back to the
office, but couriers still had to travel to the courthouse, wait
in line while clerks hunted through paper files, and pay 50
cents a page. With computers, Leonard thought, lawyers
could dial up and access the files directly. That thought grew
into the internal Case Management/Electronic Case Files.
With the Internet, the door opened to the world outside the
courts, and Leonard developed PACER (Public Access to
Court Electronic Records).
Asked about privacy concerns, Leonard points out that
court activity is public activity. This applies to Leonard’s latest
access project: online audio recordings of proceedings. Clients
shopping for lawyers can hear attorneys argue a case. Lawyers
taking over a case can hear all the nuances of testimony. “I
used to try to have students come to a trial,” Leonard says,
“but now I can find an area and come up with a 15-minute
audio clip in which this issue was raised and argued.”
The system also is affordable. There’s a sign-up, but
nobody is billed until they spend more than $10 in a quarter.
That’s 100 pages. This enables smaller firms, reporters, pro-
fessors and ordinary citizens largely to travel free while, in
Leonard’s words, “the larger data collectors pay the freight.”
“I believe that what makes this nation different from a lot
of others is the power of our courts,” Leonard says. “But I
also believe that in order for our courts to function most
effectively, they must be accessible and they must be trans-
parent. I’ve always felt that, and to the extent that I can
make that more possible, I’m going to try to do it.”