House Passes PACER Bill As Budget Office Says It Will Cost Less Than $1 Million A Year To Provide Free Access To Court Documents
from the court-system-seems-to-have-embraced-Hollywood-accounting dept
We’re one step closer to free access to federal court documents. The House has passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, moving it on to the Senate, which will decide whether the bill lands on the president’s desk.
Yes, this sort of thing has happened before. And previous efforts have always died on their way to the Oval Office. But this one might be different. A growing collection of case law says the US Courts system has been overcharging users and illegally spending funds meant to improve the PACER system and, yes, lower the cost for users.
This latest effort has a bit more momentum than its predecessors. And that seems to worrying the US Courts, which has fought back with dubious assertions and even more dubious budget estimates. The court system claims it will cost at least $2 billion over the next several years to overhaul PACER and provide free access to documents. Experts say it will cost far less.
A group of former government technologists and IT experts dispute that figure. In a letter sent last week to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the group estimated the cost of a new system would be $10 million to $20 million over 36 months to build the system and between $3 million and $5 million annually to maintain and develop.
Even more damning is the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate. According to its report, fixing the system and providing free access to most users would cost less than $1 million a year.
On net, CBO estimates that enacting H.R 8235 would increase the deficit by $9 million over the 2021-2030 period.
The report says overhauling the system will cost around $46 million. But that will be offset by fees the court system will be able to collect from “high-volume, for-profit users,” which the CBO estimates to be about $47 million over the same period. After subtracting some expected revenue declines and indirect tax effects, the court system should net about $37 million over the next decade.
That should end the debate over cost but it probably won’t. For whatever reason, the court system continues to insist giving citizens free access to court documents would bankrupt the system. If it can find allies receptive to its bad math in the Senate, it could end this bill’s run.
But no one but the court system agrees with the court system’s math. It’s not just potential beneficiaries of free access providing much lower cost estimates. The government itself disagrees with this branch’s budgetary suppositions. Hopefully, the CBO and the tireless work of transparency advocates will finally push free PACER past the Senate and onto the president’s desk.