Could legal tech have saved Tom Cotton from embarrassing himself?
Well… no. Tom Cotton approached the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation process deeply committed to showing his whole ass. So merely repairing one embarrassing error on his part would only ensure that he’d stumble into a different one.
But the latest in legal technology offered Cotton an opportunity to avoid one specific blunder. So there’s that!
During Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings, Cotton attempted to tie the nominee to representing Guantanamo Bay detainees after leaving the public defender’s office. The point — if it could be called one — was that defending the accused is part of the job for a public defender but anyone taking on that work pro bono is per se treasonous. Because big government is a tyrannical institution dead set on crushing the individual… but also representing anyone on the wrong end of state power is bad.
Conservatism is large and contains multitudes.
Anyway, check out this exchange:
Cotton: “Did you ever represent any of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay when you were not a public defender?”…
Brown Jackson: “I left the federal defender’s office, I joined a law firm and one of the people that I represented was now at that law firm. They had him as a client.”
Cotton: “That’s Mr. al Sawam.”
Brown Jackson: “al Qahtani”
Cotton: “al Qahtani was the one.”…
Cotton: “What about Mr. al Sawam?”
Brown Jackson: “I don’t know what happened to Mr. al Sawam.”
Cotton: “You were listed as counsel for two years during your time at Morrison & Foerster.”
Brown Jackson: “What happens is when you leave from any place, firms or government service, um, you have to let the Court know. Or, their records, their records reflect where you are in the system, and not so much the case in terms of your address.”
Judge Jackson is being generous here because in reality you can tell the court all you want and their records might still be broken. That’s just the superior level of service you expect from the government’s $2 billion PACER database!
PACER is often a mess of vestigial data getting updated in one place and ignored in another. In this case, it appears Judge Jackson left the public defender’s office and PACER just left her on there. And when she updated her contact information to her new firm email, the system just plugged that into the old entry rather than remove her from the case.
The thing is, there are tools that allow lawyers to parse through the PACER data and provide an accurate account of who really runs a case. Lex Machina highlighted this specific Cotton-Jackson exchange as an example of what their product can do:
At Lex Machina, we are very aware of the challenges presented by the enormous amount of litigation data that is part of the dockets and documents in PACER. We use a combination of approaches including: automated filtering that is part of our Attorney Data Engine; our Signature Block Analyzer that identifies attorneys from their filings; and manual curations by our data team to address any discrepancies. That means our attorney-law firm associations are more accurate than what you get from PACER alone.
In other words, by looking at the totality of the case, Lex Machina can figure out that “Mofo attorney Ketanji Brown Jackson” already left the public defender’s office, isn’t actually on any of these filings, and has nothing to do with this matter. It sounds simple, but clicking through hundreds of docket entries to determine just how broken PACER is presents an onerous task — one that Lex Machina can perform instantly.
Not that it really matters to Cotton, who had his sense of shame surgically removed years ago. But if you ever find yourself trying to sort out someone’s past representations, Lex Machina can help you avoid humiliation.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.