The ability to electronically file federal court documents has been a boon for litigators. However, the vast majority of electronically-filed documents are “dumb” pdfs: the only benefit to reading ECF documents on screen rather than on paper is that ECF documents generated by MS Word, WordPerfect or a pdf creation program like Adobe Acrobat are searchable.
The Attorney Guide to Hyperlinking in the Federal Courts aims to change this situation. As the Guide explains,
[a]ttorneys can include links to cited law and CM/ECF filings in their briefs filed in CM/ECF, adding another level of persuasion to their writing. Hyperlinks in briefs and other court filings provide quick, easy, and pinpoint access to particular sections of a case, or to specific filings in the court’s record. The attorney can thereby highlight the precise issue presented, and the specific evidence and controlling or persuasive law the court should consider.
Hyperlinks in court filings are very beneficial for court chambers. Court submissions which include links to relevant case law and case filings are easy for chambers staff to review. The attorneys’ arguments can be immediately verified in the context of the relevant law. The judge or judicial clerk is able to read the text of the cited caselaw on one screen while reading the attorney’s brief on the other. And if a brief contains links to referenced exhibits, and even to specific pages within those exhibits, the judge or judicial clerk can access the relevant evidence without having to navigate through the CM/ECF record. Particularly when dealing with large and complex cases, links save chambers considerable time and effort. Links make it easy for the court to verify—and adopt—the positions taken by an advocate.
The guide provides clear, step-by-step instructions—with screenshots—explaining how to hyperlink to:
- prior CM/ECF filings
- attachments to a brief being filed in CM/ECF
- legal citations on Lexis, Westlaw and court websites
The Guide also explains how to ensure that hyperlinks remain “live” after a document is converted from MS Word or WordPerfect to pdf format.
The only fly in the hyperlinking ointment is the requirement that all filed documents must be in pdf/A format. Pdf/A is an International Standards Organization (ISO) standard document format. Pdf/A documents are self-contained and do not rely on or access information outside of the document itself to display the information contained within the document. Accordingly, the pdf document appears, and will continue to appear, identical to the document from which it was created, no matter where or when it is accessed. Although not all federal courts currently require documents to be filed in pdf/A format, pdf/A will eventually be required nationwide.
The most significant limitation of pdf/A for purposes of the current discussion is that some methods of pdf creation do not retain live masked hyperlinks. When a hyperlink is “masked,” the full URL of the referenced file is not visible to the user. For example, the link in the first paragraph of this article to the Guide is a masked hyperlink. The “unmasked” link to the same document is http://www.ned.uscourts.gov/internetDocs/cmecf/AttorneyGuide-Hyperlinking.pdf. As you can see, masked hyperlinks generally make a lot more sense to the reader. Additionally, they’re often shorter than unmasked links. Be sure to read How are hyperlinks in documents affected by the pdf/A requirement? at the PACER website for more information about which pdf creation methods retain masked hyperlinks.
The Guide was created by District of Nebraska judges and courthouse staff. While the Guide‘s instructions apply to filings in all federal courts, as the authors note, it’s important to check the local rules to determine which types of hyperlinks are allowed in documents filed in any particular court.