US Courts Rep Ignores Everything About The Internet, Says PACER Access Can Never Be Free Because It Costs Money To Operate


Open access to court documents is something we still don’t have, thanks to PACER. The creation of PACER was supposed to increase public access, but the government erected a paywall between the public and the documents. To make things worse, the PACER’s front end is an antiquated nightmare. The system isn’t consolidated, so people seeking documents need to know exactly where it was filed before they can even start paying $0.10/page for unhelpful search results.

No one who uses PACER likes it. But it’s the government’s monopoly, so everyone who uses PACER has to use PACER because there is no alternative. The US Court system rakes in $150-200 million a year in fees, but hardly any of that money is being put towards fixing a system that only barely works and does so in the most begrudging way possible. Lawsuits have been filed and legislation proposed that would give the public free access to court documents, but so far, nothing has changed. PACER is still expensive. And it still sucks.

The sad state of PACER was discussed during a recent Congressional hearing. And it was defended in the worst way possible by the Judicial Conference’s speaker.

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.”

Everything about Fleissig’s statement is ridiculous.

First and foremost, just because something costs money to operate doesn’t mean it can’t be free. To use a government example, interstate highways are free to use, yet they cost billions to construct and maintain. ($96 billion in 2014 alone.) The money does come from “somewhere,” as Fleissig correctly notes. It’s called taxes. The thing about PACER is its funded by both tax dollars and fees. The documents people pay to access are created with tax dollars that pay judges, clerks, and every other government employee involved in creating, processing, and posting documents citizens are then expected to pay $0.10/page to download.

Stepping outside the government, there are countless examples of free services that cost money to run, like Google’s search engine… or the numerous browser options people use to run Google searches. Every search engine (and I’m including Bing here) runs better than PACER’s internal search engine. And none of those charge users $0.10/page for search results. And then there’s email, cloud storage, social media platforms, web-based apps, job-hunting services, classified ad sites, blogging platforms, mobile games, YouTube… a whole internet full of free services that cost money to create and support — all at no cost to the user.

But that’s only part of the ridiculousness. Insisting that it takes $100 million to run PACER is bogus. The US Courts system may spend $100 million doing it but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done more efficiently for less money. A bureaucracy claiming it spends every cent of its budget doing something shouldn’t be taken as evidence said thing actually requires that much funding to accomplish. Government budgets are things to be spent, not areas of concern where less-costly options might be explored. The process does not lend itself to efficiency since the only thing that accomplishes is less money being appropriated in the next fiscal year.

While there are the salaries of support staff to consider, the bulk of the claimed expense is processing and hosting of PDFs and digital court dockets. The internet is built for this kind of thing and there are any number of options that would reduce costs and increase user-friendliness… all while giving away PDFs and docket listings for free. The system doesn’t necessarily need to be privatized, but perhaps it should be outsourced to vendors that specialize in all the problems PACER has failed to solve for nearly two decades.

And here’s another partial solution — one inadvertently stumbled upon by the US Courts itself:

Approximately “87 percent of all PACER revenue is attributable to just 2 percent of users—large financial institutions and major commercial enterprises that aggregate massive amounts of data for analysis and resale,” the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said.

Well, if that’s the case, the largest users can subsidize everyone else. Set a monthly cap of 5,000 pages and let those who need more pay for unlimited access. It seems like the top 5% of users could easily guarantee free access for everyone. And if anyone else wants “value-added” access to the court document system (maybe with some sort of fire hose feed), they can pay for it. Those that just want to find relevant case documents can still muddle their way through PACER’s broken system to find them, all without having to pay the government for documents they still haven’t managed to find yet.

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Comments on “US Courts Rep Ignores Everything About The Internet, Says PACER Access Can Never Be Free Because It Costs Money To Operate”

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Anonymous Coward says:

$100 million

Insisting that it takes $100 million[/year] to run PACER is bogus. The US Courts system may spend $100 million doing it but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done more efficiently for less money.

As a point of comparison, the Internet Archive’s budget is about $10 million/year. That’s for the whole thing—digital hosting and storage, indexing, physical archiving, salaries, etc.—including as much PACER data as they’ve been able to get their hands on via RECAP. They charge $0 for people to access those digital copies. Their search engine’s not great, but neither is PACER’s, and I think they could improve that for less than $90 million.

A-Sbeve-Or-Two (profile) says:

Want A Better Solution? Here’s A Starter!

Don’t let money consume your intentions. It’ll only get worse. Don’t ignore the fundamentals and don’t twist the truth for a lump of cash. That’s how bad reputations start. No wonder people don’t like Democrats and Republicans: both sides berate each other because they won’t admit that they both are corrupted by their lusts for cash at the expense of the lives of millions.
If you want a fair internet, don’t be greedy about money and admit the truth. The truth shall set your free.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: The downside

The biggest users do not sell the results. The biggest users are law firms, financial institutions, and so on who are using the PACER system in their legal/financial practices.

Law firms researching case law relevant for the suits they are involved in (whether representing plaintiffs or defendants). For writing contracts, advising clients, and so on. They don’t on-sell the PACER documents directly, they use it in providing their legal services.

The same for financial institutions, in molding their policies, strategies etc (i.e. what they think they can get away with in the almost un-restrained pursuit of profits, CDOs, etc.).

Robert Beckman (profile) says:

The wrong problem

People keep talking about this like it’s a lack of access problem – its not.

Google, Internet Archive, or even Webo would assuredly do all of the technical work for free (just think about the data mining that could come of it), including writing the APIs and installing them on each court system so that when something is eFiled it automatically gets pushed to them.

The problem isn’t doing that, it’s that if it happened the cartels in power would lose some of their power, and some of their money, and empire builders always want to keep building their empires. That’s why they get into the racket in the first place.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: YES, told you: gov't isn't going to let corps get FREE.

thats kinda funny, as you would think that the Gov. would get FREE access and service by building its own Infrastructure into the net…
EASY..WHY pay for it..

BECAUSE we got rid of the tech dept in the 1990’s… and Every tech Czar tends to get FIRED while trying to tell everyone that the GOV. needs an update.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well, if that’s the case, the largest users can subsidize everyone else. Set a monthly cap of 5,000 pages and let those who need more pay for unlimited access. It seems like the top 5% of users could easily guarantee free access for everyone

How about we try and avoid the cable t.v. and cell phone service price models and set just a flat monthly fee?

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re:

With the understanding that Cable TV/SAT/Internet/phone service/Cell phones/and a few other things…
Tend to use the backbone of the Phone/internet system, that is Primarily built across this country. You would think that the End points in cities could/could combine all of it into 1 package and charge you 1 rate fee..Fairly Cheap.
Its all 1 line to your house, or could be. And each house could be its Own cell phone connection, as well as local Wireless to EVERY ONE…No dead spots. Insted of paying for Tower and power to locations EACH HOUSE is a Local connection point.
And there are a few other things that can be added, with abit more tech… Like POWER to each home with a second connection.. All these corps could become part of the power system.
As you didnt focus your comment to this 1 subject…

Anonymous Coward says:

Before I even finished the article I thought, "Certain people would pay a great deal of money for premium access to this data that could subsidize Joe Citizen who just wants to read a court transcript." And those premium users could even make the data available in easier and better ways that would benefit everyone, like what RECAP tries to do.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is the same agency that is shitting themselves over the fact that Congress wants to force the creation of an Inspector General. The AO doesn’t have one and the leadership doesn’t want one else the skeletons in the closet will finally see the light of day.

The director and his 7th floor cronies need to go. The amount of waste in the AO is astounding. No wonder there is a well worn path of folks beating on the doors of the Senate Judiciary committee to tell the story that leadership doesn’t want told.

urza9814 (profile) says:

"Free" like Google?

Yeah, let’s make access to public records "free" in the same way as Google search — funded by selling off the personal information of everyone who ever visits the site. No possible way for THAT to go wrong, right?

Seriously, can you try to spend at least five seconds THINKING about these arguments before you make them? Sounds like you put just as much thought into this as the courts did in their arguments. Probably less actually — crafting their level of BS surely takes some work.

Unlimited access accounts could have similar problems…Google pays for unlimited access, then posts them for free, profiting by data-mining the documents and advertising on the pages. Pretty soon nobody else is paying for that service because they just get it from Google, and the subscriber counts drop, meaning costs rise, and pretty soon you’ve effectively just privatized the whole thing and outsourced it to a private company with very little regulation as to how that information is used or presented. Do you really want public records to be data mined to the greatest extent possible and delivered covered with advertisements? I’d say it’s far better to just let it be paid for by taxes directly.

urza9814 (profile) says:

Re: Re: No, not like them at all

If you’re gonna complain that someone didn’t read the complete article, you could at least have the decency to read their complete comment. I can tell that you clearly didn’t, or you would have noticed where I directly referenced content from the very last paragraph of the article — yet for some reason you claim I never read that far. How about you try to actually respond to the points made next time rather than just picking a random insult out of a hat?

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: No, not like them at all

I fail to see how the “unlimited access accounts” you mentioned bear any resemblance to the ones proposed in the article, which suggests that you may have merely skimmed that part. (It’s also worth noting that reading the last paragraph doesn’t mean you read all the words before it.)

For one thing, PACER could be set up to not allow Google or other sites to quickly skim through and repost documents for free.

Also, it’s worth noting that some people already collect every filing they can from PACER and similar sources and post them for free viewing, but that takes extra time; a lot of the big buyers need access the moment it becomes available. You assumed that PACER’s not already datamined and made available by private organizations with minimal regulation, and that’s not accurate.

And show me where in the article it suggests your first idea.

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