Legislators Take Another Stab At Eliminating Fees For PACER Access

from the aligning-the-price-tag-with-the-value-of-PACER's-UI dept

An new annual tradition in the halls of Congress is being celebrated with the introduction of legislation targeting PACER fees.

Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) reintroduced the Electronic Court Records Reform Act as HR 1164 Wednesday with cosponsors Mike Quigley (D-IL), David Roe (R-TN), and Henry “Hank” C. Johnson, Jr. (D-GA).

The full title of the bill is “To direct the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to consolidate the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system, and for other purposes.” The full text of the bill is not currently available, but it is expected to be substantially similar to HR 6714 from the second session of the 115th Congress last year.

Last year’s bill died after being referred to the House Judiciary Committee, most likely trampled underfoot by Congressional hearings and wall-related legislation. Either that or it’s tough to get Congress members excited about eliminating fees they already don’t have to pay.

There have been no successful attempts to curb PACER fees, much less turn it into a free service. We know this because PACER still charges $0.10/page for documents and dockets as if it were an aged librarian keeping close tabs on the Xerox machine.

It has been nearly 20 years since PACER opened its doors to the public. Since its inception, prices have increased, fee collections have steadily ticked upward, and almost none of that money is being spent trying to lower access costs or update the archaic system that punishes the public for expressing an interest in court proceedings.

The only thing PACER has really done over the last twenty years is attract legislation and lawsuits. While it did create an online portal for court documents that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, that’s about all it’s done with the time and money the US court system has had at its disposal. It’s not that this step wasn’t important. It was a huge step forward. Since then, the PACER system has been characterized by its inertia.

Maybe this will be the year Congress finally decides to take this issue seriously. At least one federal court has suggested PACER is misusing fees. Another judge has decided to allow a class action suit against the US Courts system to proceed, stating that these litigants suffer directly from the costs imposed by the government’s walled garden.

At the heart of all this is the First Amendment and the presumption of openness the US court system is supposed to adhere to. Instituting a paywall allows only some people to exercise their right to access public court documents. Whatever arguments might be made about having to offset the (very minimal) costs of maintaining this portal ignore the obvious side effects of limiting access only to those who can afford it.

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Comments on “Legislators Take Another Stab At Eliminating Fees For PACER Access”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

A free PACER system is likely competition for Lexus/Nexus and/or any other system that charges for access to the underlying information.

I haven’t used Lexus/Nexus and don’t know if they add some value, other than making the information searchable (it is likely that they digitized a bunch of dead tree information though), which might make their fees worthwhile. It is still competition and failing to make PACER free for everyone just might be a part of their regulatory capture agenda.

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