Opinion | Public Records Belong to the Public – The New York Times

“There’s no reason for the federal government to profit from access to court documents….

Pacer, a 30-year-old relic that remains unwieldy to use, is a collection of online portals run by the administrative arm of the federal court system. It was designed, at least in principle, to provide online access to the more than one billion court documents that have been docketed in federal courts across the country since the advent of electronic case filing.

But the public can gain access to these public documents online only by paying significant fees. Pacer charges 10 cents per page to view electronic court documents — or up to $3 for documents exceeding 30 pages, which are common. It’s easy to burn up $10 just by looking up rudimentary information about a single case….

The E-Government Act of 2002 says that courts may impose fees “only to the extent necessary” to make public records available. That phrase is now at the center of a class-action lawsuit brought by nonprofit advocacy groups. The groups are challenging the fee structure of the Pacer system, which in 2016 took in $146 million, despite costing only a small fraction of that to operate….

There’s also an admirable bill that was introduced last year in Congress, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, that goes a step further than what is being sought in the class-action suit. It would make all documents filed with the federal courts available free to the public. (In 2017, the Supreme Court, often a late adopter of new technologies, made virtually all of its new court filings freely available online.) The legislation also would mandate needed updates to Pacer, including making documents text-searchable and linkable from external websites….”