Technology

New Bill Calls For An End To PACER Fees, Complete Overhaul Of The Outdated System

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:

Representatives Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.) are hoping to drastically change all of the above with their bipartisan reform effort, the Open Courts Act (OCA).

The bill would make online access to federal court records free to the public. It also contains language that would effectively improve upon PACER’s current and wildly out-of-date search functionality, increase third-party accessibility to the entire system, and upgrade and maintain the database using modern data standards.

This is a good bill. It aims for something more than just free access. (To be honest, that would at least offset the frustration of subjecting yourself to PACER’s hideous charms in an attempt to talk it out of some filings.) Free access is a necessity. At this point, the presumed openness of the court still hides behind a paywall, separating citizens from courtroom documents under the naive theory that it’s impossible to give something away if it costs money to produce. (And that assumption ignores the tax dollars already earmarked for running the court system.)

This bill would also drag the PACER system (presumably kicking and screaming) into the future… or at least a much more recent past. The 1995-esque front end would be updated, along with all the other stuff that doesn’t work well… which is pretty much everything.

It would be a bit more future-proofed. The bill [PDF] demands transparent coding that will incorporate “non-proprietary, full text searchable, platform-independent” elements. This means documents will finally be searchable by the text they contain, rather than limited to locating documents by finding the right docket and going from there. And this will hopefully fix another problem with PACER: search issues baked into the system by jurisdiction divisions. Each federal court has its own login page and, while it’s possible to search all jurisdictions, it’s far more likely you’ll be dimed to death by useless searches before you find what you need.

But who’s going to pay for this, I hear the US Courts system asking? Well, like any other FTP service, it will be mostly supported by whales.

On its own terms, the OCA would take two to three years to modernize the overall CM/ECF so that all court documents are searchable, readily accessible and machine-readable regardless of an end user’s browser setup. During this period, so-called institutional “power users” would still be subject to PACER fees–if they charge over $25,000 annually.

But not forever.

After that, fees would vanish entirely.

Will this be the bill that sticks? Maybe. Courts are finding the PACER system questionable — not just the barrier it places between the public and court documents, but the uses of the fees as well, very little of which has actually been spent on improving PACER itself. If there’s something almost everyone agrees with, it’s that PACER sucks. Being asked to pay for the dubious privilege of using a barely working system is the insult piled on top of the $0.10/page injury.



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