Just Connect Us: A Community-Oriented Civil Justice Data Commons
Lead PI:
Tanina Rostain

In the United States, cities are increasingly connected through a digital infrastructure that integrates services with the lives of their residents. These systems make cities “smart” by producing real-time data to manage services efficiently and promote the well-being of residents. This project extends this model to the courts, legal service providers, and administrative agencies that make up a community’s civil justice system. These institutions assist residents with legal problems like housing, debt, child custody, and public benefits. But, despite their centrality in people’s lives, they are neither “smart” nor “connected.” Currently, data from courts, legal service providers, and administrative agencies are collected in multiple formats and housed among multiple institutions. Access to these data, moreover, is governed by a hodgepodge of statutes, regulations, and rules. As a consequence, researchers and policymakers do not know whether the justice system furthers people’s well-being. This project investigates what rules and data standards will facilitate the sharing of data by civil justice institutions in a data commons to produce knowledge about how well these institutions serve people and what their long-term effects are on people’s lives.

This project adopts a two-pronged approach to design a civil justice data commons. It will engage with civil justice stakeholders in several communities to understand their interests and concerns. What incentives exist to share data? What privacy concerns arise? The second prong involves engaging with academic data scientists about the technical requirements and best practices for the creation of a viable data commons in the civil justice field, learning from the development of data commons in other areas (e.g., biomedical data science; social survey research). By developing best practices for data management and sharing among community civil justice institutions, this planning study will encourage state and county courts, legal service providers, government labs, and policy institutes to take steps towards building a civil justice data commons in their communities.

Tanina Rostain
Tanina Rostain is a nationally recognized expert on legal ethics, the American legal profession, and access to justice. Her work focuses on innovative approaches to improving the transparency, equity, and accessibility of the civil justice system, including through the use of digital technologies, non-lawyer service delivery models, and court modernization. At Georgetown, Tanina launched the Justice Lab, a research center dedicated to investigating new approaches to address people’s everyday legal problems. Tanina co-leads the Georgetown Civil Justice Data Commons, a secure court data repository created to facilitate research on evictions and debt collection cases. Tanina’s interest in technology and access to the civil legal system dates back to 2012, when she first offered a course — since replicated in law schools across the United States and around the world — in which student teams work with non-profit legal service providers to build apps that increase access to the justice system. Tanina’s earlier academic work explored the ethical challenges that arise in corporate and tax practice and the organizational factors that lead to professional misconduct. In 2014, she published Confidence Games: Lawyers, Accountants, and the Tax Shelter Industry (co-authored with Professor Milton C. Regan Jr.), which examined the role of tax professionals in the rise of the tax shelter industry at the end of the 20th Century. Tanina holds a B.A. with high honors from Swarthmore College, an M.A. from Yale University and J.D. from Yale Law School. After graduating from law school, Tanina clerked for Ellen Ash Peters, Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. Prior to joining Georgetown Law Center, she taught at the University of Connecticut Law School and New York Law School.
Performance Period: 03/01/2020 - 02/28/2022
Institution: Georgetown University
Award Number: 1952067