Victory on the horizon in the “Free PACER” fight

“The fight to free PACER, the federally managed database of public court records that has sat behind a paywall since its inception, has stretched on for more than a decade now. These efforts may finally pay off in 2022 with a bill poised for the Senate floor that achieves many of the aims of the “free PACER” movement.

The Open Courts Act of 2021 was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month with no recorded opposition, clearing the path for the bill to go to the full Senate. Not only that, nearly all of the committee members have now co-sponsored the legislation — a clear indication of the bill’s popularity. If passed, the Open Courts Act would standardize search and filing mechanisms between different federal courts and eliminate fees for all but the highest-volume users (those who are currently spending more than $25,000 a quarter) and federal agencies….”

[Open letter to two members of Congress in support of OA for CRS reports]

“Thank you for your ongoing efforts to provide oversight and direction to the Library of Congress and for your service on the oldest continuing joint committee of the U.S. Congress. We respectfully request that you direct the Congressional Research Service to publish all non-confidential CRS Reports online….

Congress has endorsed public availability of non-confidential CRS Reports, as have former CRS employees, civil society, and academics. Indeed, long standing congressional policy 5 6 7 has allowed Members and committees to distribute CRS products to the public over the decades and now directs the CRS to prospectively make the reports publicly available. “Non-current CRS reports,” i.e., reports not published on CRS’s internal website after the 2018 Appropriations law’s enactment date, still have relevance for members of Congress, staff, and the public. These reports provide context for issues under deliberation and illuminate choices made by members of Congress concerning policy questions that still are relevant today. CRS Reports are often cited in significant historical works of scholarship. In fact, the continued relevance of non-current CRS Reports is why, in part, CRS maintains a digitized archive of some reports for use by CRS employees that often are shared with congressional staff….

Congressional Research Service Reports enrich the legislative process and help inform public debate. We appreciate your attention to addressing public availability of non-current CRS Reports and publication of all non-confidential CRS Reports in more flexible formats….” 

“Free PACER” Bill Advances Through Senate Judiciary Unanimously | Fix the Court

“The Senate Judiciary Committee today by voice vote advanced the Open Courts Act (S. 2614), a bill that would modernize the federal judiciary’s case management system and — finally — make access to court filings free for all Americans.

The bill was initially slated for discussion in committee last week, yet Chairman Durbin opted to postpone it for a week to allow for a handful of changes. Though advocates are cheering some and are not so keen on others, none of the amendments substantially alters the bill’s impact or implementation, so strong support of the bill from Fix the Court, and, we believe, other leading nonprofit legal groups, remains….”

Suggested changes to the Open Courts Act

“We write on behalf of a group that has extensive experience building large public sites on the Internet. The purpose of this letter is to advance action on improving public access to federal court records, which are presently offered by the government through an outdated PACER system. We have extensive experience putting large government databases on the Internet and then working with public officials to help government do this work better. Our experience includes making available federal databases such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark database, the Securities and Exchange EDGAR database, the IRS Form 990 database, 14,000 hours of Congressional video from hearings posted at the request of the Speaker of the House, and over 6,000 government videos from the U.S. National Archives posted in cooperation with the Archivist of the United States. We have extensive experience working with legal information, and operate some of the largest sites for access to federal court filings, as well as the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, the regulations of all 50 states, and much more….”

Suggested changes to the Open Courts Act

“We write on behalf of a group that has extensive experience building large public sites on the Internet. The purpose of this letter is to advance action on improving public access to federal court records, which are presently offered by the government through an outdated PACER system. We have extensive experience putting large government databases on the Internet and then working with public officials to help government do this work better. Our experience includes making available federal databases such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark database, the Securities and Exchange EDGAR database, the IRS Form 990 database, 14,000 hours of Congressional video from hearings posted at the request of the Speaker of the House, and over 6,000 government videos from the U.S. National Archives posted in cooperation with the Archivist of the United States. We have extensive experience working with legal information, and operate some of the largest sites for access to federal court filings, as well as the U.S. Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, the regulations of all 50 states, and much more….”

House Passes Bill To Make Federal Court Records Free to the Public – Reason.com

“The House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday, over the objections of the federal judiciary, to make access to federal court records free to the public. 

By a voice vote, the House passed H.R. 8235, the Open Courts Act of 2020, which aims to modernize PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records)—a clunky and frustrating database of federal court filings maintained by the Administrative Office of the United States Court—and eliminate its paywall.

The database has long been the bane of lawyers, reporters, researchers, and citizen sleuths. PACER charges 10 cents a page for searches, court dockets, and documents, capped at $3.00 per document. Users who accrue less than $30 in fees every three months do not have to pay anything, which keeps casual users from being charged. But for others, costs can quickly pile up and there’s no alternative. Reason uses PACER on a daily basis to monitor civil rights lawsuits and report on the criminal justice system. As Seamus Hughes, a terrorism researcher who scours PACER for new prosecutions, lamented in Politico Magazine last year, “My work at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism generates a quarterly PACER bill that could fund a coup in a small country.”

 

Even the Justice Department has to pay to use PACER. Between 2010 and 2017, the DOJ spent $124 million on federal court records….”

The federal judiciary should allow free access to public court records | R Street

“In September, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Open Courts Act of 2020 (H.R. 8235) by voice vote. The bipartisan bill—co-sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.)—seeks to knock down the current paywall around public federal court filings.

Today, the federal judiciary maintains online public court records, called the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER, for short). But, to view these records, PACER forces users to register for an account, provide credit card information, and then charges users 10 cents a page to download and view most public filings….”

Judges oppose new online database with free access to court records – The Washington Post

“Leaders of the federal judiciary are working to block bipartisan legislation designed to create a national database of court records that would provide free access to case documents.

Backers of the bill, who are pressing for a House vote in the coming days, envision a streamlined, user-friendly system that would allow citizens to search for court documents and dockets without having to pay. Under the current system, users pay 10 cents per page to view the public records through the service known as PACER, an acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records….”

 

New Bill Calls For An End To PACER Fees, Complete Overhaul Of The Outdated System | Techdirt

“The perennial make-PACER-free legislation has arrived. If you’re not familiar with PACER, count yourself among the lucky ones. PACER performs an essential task: it provides electronic access to federal court dockets and documents. That’s all it does and it barely does it.

PACER charges taxpayers (who’ve already paid taxes to fund the federal court system) $0.10/page for EVERYTHING. Dockets? $0.10/page. (And that “page” is very loosely defined.) Every document is $0.10/page, as though the court system was running a copier and chewing up expensive toner. So is every search result page, even those that fail to find any responsive results. The user interface would barely have been considered “friendly” 30 years ago, never mind in the year of our lord two thousand twenty. Paying $0.10/page for everything while attempting to navigate an counterintuitive interface draped over something that looks like it’s being hosted by Angelfire is no one’s idea of a nostalgic good time.

Legislation attempting to make PACER access free was initiated in 2018. And again in 2019. We’re still paying for access, thanks to the inability of legislators to get these passed. Maybe this is the year it happens, what with a bunch of courtroom precedent being built up suggesting some illegal use of PACER fees by the US Courts system. We’ll see. Here’s what’s on tap for this year’s legislative session: …”

Enabling complete PACER RSS feeds in the Eastern District of California

“We are writing to urge the District Court for the Eastern District of California to fully enable an existing feature of the PACER system: RSS feeds of all recent cases and filings in your jurisdiction. I am the executive director of Free Law Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Oakland, California that works to make the U.S. legal system more fair and efficient. I am writing on behalf of a broad coalition of individuals and organizations that believe enabling this simple feature is important to transparency and public understanding of court activity….” 

Circuit Panel Rebuffs Judiciary on Excessive PACER Fees

“The federal judiciary cannot fund its pick of courtroom technologies with the fees drawn in by a system that makes court records publicly available, an appellate panel ruled Thursday. 

PACER, short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, was created over 30 years ago to just what its name suggests, charging 10 cents per page, or $3 per item, since its last fee hike in 2012….”

PACER Court Records ‘Can Never Be Free,’ Judge Says (1)

“Making the judiciary’s electronic filings free to the public without an alternative funding source likely would result in steep court fee increases for litigants and hinder access to justice due to cost, a federal judge told a congressional panel Sept. 26.

Judge Audrey Fleissig of the U.S. District court for the Eastern District of Missouri also said in testimony for the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, IP, and the internet that shifting costs away from users without another funding plan would burden courts with new costs.

“Our case management and public access systems can never be free because they require over $100 million per year just to operate,” Fleissig said. “That money must come from somewhere.” …”

Invisible Shackles: The Monopolization of Public Access Legal Research due to Government Failures

“The creation of a system that relies on past decisions, or precedent, such as case law, without providing an opportunity to meaningfully organize such information has circumvented the principle of public access to the law. In fashioning such a flawed scheme, the government has relinquished responsibility and vested in private parties the power to structure significant portions of the legal system on their own. Now, more than two centuries after the inception of the United States legal system, sophisticated corporations have captured the market for legal research and the government has provided no viable alternative that serves the public interest.

This comment argues that the current paradigm for legal research, particularly for free information such as state and federal case opinions and statutes, federal agency regulations, and many law review or journal articles, is one that inhibits rather than promotes public access to the law. The core problem is that properly organized and intelligible legal data is sealed away behind paid, proprietary software while official government sources remain archaic, unintuitive, and disordered….”

The Feds Make a Killing by Overcharging for Electronic Court Records – Reason.com

If you want to find a federal court case—say, to look up the latest juicy filing in the prosecution of one of Donald Trump’s indicted cronies—odds are you’ll hold your nose and log on to the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) website, a system run by the federal judiciary.

It’s an old and clunky platform, running on the best interface the mid-1990s had to offer. Which might be excusable if it were free, but it’s not.

PACER charges 10 cents a page for court records and searches. There’s a $3 cap on large documents, and users pay nothing if their bill is under $15 per quarter. This keeps most casual users from needing to pony up—but for news organizations, researchers, and legal professionals, costs can pile up quickly….”

The Federal Courts Are Running An Online Scam – POLITICO Magazine

“Every day, dozens of hungry reporters lurk inside something called PACER, the online records system for America’s federal courts. These days, they’re mostly looking for the latest scraps of intel on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian inference into the 2016 presidential election. And everyone, from lawyers to researchers to activists, uses the system to find similar criminal cases, track the latest arrests of terrorism suspects or argue for sentencing reform.

But I’m here to tell you that PACER—Public Access to Court Electronic Records—is a judicially approved scam. The very name is misleading: Limiting the public’s access by charging hefty fees, it has been a scam since it was launched and, barring significant structural changes, will be a scam forever….

The U.S. federal court system rakes in about $145 million annually to grant access to records that, by all rights, belong to the public….”