Senate Inches Closer To Providing Free Access To PACER

from the years-late-but-better-than-never dept

Might a free PACER finally be on the horizon? For years, activists and a handful of Congressional reps have attempted to strip the fees from PACER, the federal court system’s antiquated database that provides online access to court documents.

The antiquation doesn’t begin with the fees. The system is outdated and hasn’t improved much over the years, despite the fact that PACER regularly turns a profit. PACER looks and performs like a holdover from the 1990s. The UI is its own barrier to entry. The search function barely functions, vacillating between drawing a blank or producing several pages of irrelevant search results.

And that’s where the fees kick in. PACER operates like a library copy machine, charging users $0.10/page for everything. Search results and dockets are treated like they’re being printed out at the central PACER desk. Useless search results are $0.10/page. So are dockets, which may or may not contain the documents. These fees add up before users even locate the documents they’re looking for. Those documents are also $0.10/page to download in PDF form, putting price on ones, zeroes, and the fractions of cents needed to generate, store, and transmit the documents.

The US Courts System has blown PACER profit on in-court niceties like new TV screens and furniture. Almost none of the millions PACER generates has gone towards improving PACER itself or lowering access fees. The federal court system has argued it will cost billions to overhaul PACER and provide free access to users.

But according to the Congressional Budget Office investigation and former government technologists, the actual outlay for an improved, free PACER is much less. The CBO says free access would only cost about $1 million a year. Technologists estimate the overhaul would only cost $10-20 million and require less than $5 million a year to maintain.

These facts helped push a bill mandating free access to PACER through Congress late last year. But that’s only half the battle. And it’s the far easier half of the battle. The Senate still needs to create and pass its own version, meld that with the House of Representatives offering, and drop a cohesive bill on the President’s desk.

Well, we’re one step closer to that happening, as Nate Raymond reports for Reuters.

A U.S. Senate panel on Thursday advanced a bipartisan bill that would overhaul the federal judiciary’s PACER electronic court record system and make the downloading of filings free for the public through the elimination of costly fees.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the Open Courts Act of 2021 to the full Senate for its consideration after adopting an amendment that provided for additional funding and addressed the judiciary’s concerns on technical issues.

The panel approved the measure on voice vote without any recorded opposition, and in a sign of the bill’s support, nearly all of the committee members elected to co-sponsor the legislation by the end of the hearing.

The Administrative Office of the US Courts is still pretending this is far too expensive to accomplish. According to its statement to the Senate, it remains committed to modernizing PACER (which clearly isn’t true) and thinks it will run out of money if people who’ve already paid once for the creation and storage of these documents aren’t forced to pay again for access to them.

The Senate bill [PDF] would force the court system to do the thing it pretends it’s been doing for years: overhaul the outdated PACER system. To help pay for these initial costs, high-volume users (those accessing more than $25,000 in dockets and documents quarterly) would still be charged PACER fees. For everyone else, it would be free.

The bill is still a few steps away from passing but free access to PACER is closer than it’s been in years. And there’s really no reason the government needs to continue charging taxpayers for access to documents they’ve already paid for. One wonders why the federal courts are so resistant to this change, considering the only thing at stake here is other people’s money. Free access will still be taxpayer-funded. All this means is the court system won’t have as large a slush fund to spend on office furniture and TVs — items that do nothing to improve public access to court documents, which was the point of PACER all along.

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Comments on “Senate Inches Closer To Providing Free Access To PACER”

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Anonymous Coward says:

To help pay for these initial costs, high-volume users (those accessing more than $25,000 in dockets and documents quarterly) would still be charged PACER fees. For everyone else, it would be free.

Folks like LexisNexis and Findlaw are likely to continue, but I expect the RECAP project (part of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy) to gain in popularity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That $25,000 thing is kind of bullshit for several reasons. It means they still can’t let people access PACER freely, i.e. easily and without login, because they have to track how much each person accesses. Projects like RECAP won’t be able to simply mirror all of PACER, which means PACER won’t reap the benefits of others absorbing the costs (or improving on their terrible interface). The US court system has to continue to maintain all this stuff: logins, payment infrastructure, tech support, etc. Each action will still have a "cost" associated, which is now sure to remain ridiculous.

All this, just so they can charge (maybe indirectly) the one group they’ll be forever getting lots of guaranteed revenue from: big law firms. They’d be better off signing a contract with the RECAP people to give free access to everyone, and maybe a more convenient (paid) programmatic interface to LexisNexis et al.

Paul B says:

Pacer Costs

I’ve done Gov work before.

This system rework is highly likely to go over budget for the most stupid reasons you can think of. PACER stores PDF’s and "All" gov systems must follow the ADA, therefore the new PACER will have to allow screen readers, nevermind PDFs are not screen readable most of the time.

Every other pet project is going to have someone jump on it for this system as well.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"The Administrative Office of the US Courts is still pretending this is far too expensive to accomplish."

Then perhaps they should no longer be in charge of that. does all of this really well on a fscking shoestring, imagine if we just turned it over to them with the budget the courts manage to piss away.

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