Legal nonprofit expands access to Maryland court data
Matthew Stubenberg may be leaving his job as information technology director at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service later this month, but his chief accomplishment at the Baltimore nonprofit will remain for years to come: a perpetually-updating, searchable database of every criminal and civil case in the state.
In his three years at the nonprofit that provides civil legal services to low-income clients, Stubenberg has built a duplicate of the Maryland Judiciary’s publicly available online case search system — but with one major improvement. The MVLS database can be dissected in ways that the state’s database cannot to reveal trends — in litigation, police charges, arrests, outcome — over weeks, months and years.
The nonprofit’s system has “scraped” the available online data for 25 million cases dating back to 1990 and reconfigured them in a way that allows anyone with a free account to devise searches using a coding language known as SQL. And the group, working with the Maryland State Bar Association and others, has been holding free training sessions to teach the language.
Stubenberg hopes people will use such access to pinpoint trends that will “change how lawyers practice law” on behalf of low-income clients facing legal cases against landlords, debt collectors and mortgage companies.
“There seems to be a need for it,” said Stubenberg, who is leaving for a job at the Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab. “The greatest legacy is that it gets lawyers thinking of different ways to approach a case.”
Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service has created accounts for 20 different organizations, including for The Baltimore Sun, which used an analysis of the system’s data for its 2017 Dismissed series of articles that revealed that judges routinely sided with landlords over tenants in housing disputes between 2010 and 2016.
Alicia Shelton, an attorney at Zuckerman Spaeder, recently organized a training session for the Maryland State Bar Association’s young lawyers section.
“We have found that data is playing an increasingly important role in litigation and that young lawyers strongly benefit from learning such skills early,” Shelton said.
The group used the database, called CLUE, to access data for charges, outcomes and defendant demographics.
“We also used SQL to identify trends in the data, such as sentencing ranges for certain convictions,” Shelton added.
Stubenberg said the database has helped lawyers file class action lawsuits more easily by enabling them to find defendants who share landlords or who have had interactions with the same police officer.
The Volunteer Lawyers Service also has used the data to identify individuals facing foreclosure so it can send legal information in mass mailers.
“Something that would have taken hours now just takes 30 seconds,” Stubenberg added.
The project began with a focus on helping the lawyers service identify how many of its clients’ charges were eligible to be erased from court records through the state’s expungement process. Erasing those past cases can help people find jobs, secure loans and buy homes. That process has now become an automated service at MVLS for people seeking the group’s aid.
He said MVLS prohibits certain groups, such as background-search firms working for property managers, from accessing the database.
“We are funded to help low-income people,” Stubenberg said. “We wanted to make sure it was used for the benefit of them, or, at a minimum, not to their detriment.”
Nadine Maeser, spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary, said the courts are aware of the MVLS database but does “not endorse it.”
“We have concerns about screen scraping because it can overrun server resources, which results in performance concerns of our own database,” Maeser said. “Unless a person and/or organization is updating it in real time, it could contain stale data.”