Seamus Hughes was digging around on PACER, the search engine for the federal court system, when he noticed something odd: A routine charge of indecent exposure had the names of two national-security prosecutors listed on it. That didn’t make any sense. Hughes clicked. There he discovered a major error hiding on the second page. Prosecutors had accidentally pasted in language from a separate brief—one that revealed the bombshell news that Julian Assange had been secretly indicted. The revelation had sat unnoticed for more than a week, until Hughes tweeted about it. The next day, he opened the paper to read about his discovery on the front page of the Washington Post.
Hughes is deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and has a knack for uncovering big news just by exploring PACER. There was the time he noticed a court filing revealing that Congressman Duncan Hunter’s campaign office had been raided by FBI agents. Or when he found filings showing that LA city-council members were under investigation. Or most recently, in February, when he discovered that a seemingly unremarkable charging document was really about a Coast Guard employee who prosecutors believe was planning a mass murder.
All of these scoops were hidden in the deadening arcana of court documents that few people bother to read. “My wife is not particularly happy that this is my hobby,” says Hughes, who often spends hours at home on his laptop after he tucks in the kids.
Recently at his office at GW, Hughes walked us through the search process. It can be maddeningly user-unfriendly. For example, each federal court district—there are 94 in all—has a unique phrase for filing search warrants. Maryland uses “in the matter of,” while in Virginia that phrase will yield zero results.
Lately, Hughes has found a new way to put his pastime to good use: training other people to navigate the system. He has led seminars for the Washington Post and New York Times, among others. “It’s been a bit surreal when law firms call and ask for help,” he says. Aren’t journalists and lawyers the people one would expect to be versed in the mysteries of PACER? Hughes smiles: “You would think.”
This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Washingtonian.