Federal Courts Making It More Expensive To Access Records, Even As They're Swimming In Cash

from the the-public-domain-is-expensive dept

The Federal Court's PACER system is really quite misguided. It's the system that the federal courts use to distribute judicial records (court filings, rulings, etc.), but rather than making that info available to the public, it's basically locked up behind a paywall, and it costs people 8 cents per page to download documents. Well, it did cost 8 cents per page. They've just announced that they're jacking up the fees to 10 cents per page, and that can add up pretty quickly when accessing a lot of court documents or some rather long filings or rulings.

While Harlan Yu and Tim Lee helped create RECAP to free up court documents, and that has helped make some of this material more widely available, it's still limited. And, in fact, some courts have expressed concerns about RECAP and told lawyers not to use it. And even though the official policy of the US courts is that they're fine with RECAP, it appears not everyone in the court system agrees. EFF lawyer Michael Barclay recently alerted me to the fact that the PACER system for the Western District of NY has a warning on its query page about RECAP, saying:
The court would like to make CM/ECF filers aware of certain security concerns relating to a software application or .plug-in. called RECAP, which was designed by a group from Princeton University to enable the sharing of court documents on the Internet.

Once a user loads RECAP, documents that he or she subsequently accesses via PACER are automatically sent to a public Internet repository. Other RECAP/PACER users are then able to see whether documents are available from the Internet repository. RECAP captures District and Bankruptcy Court documents, but has not yet incorporated Appellate Court functionality. At this time, RECAP does not appear to provide users with access to restricted or sealed documents. Please be aware that RECAP is "open-source" software, which can be freely obtained by anyone with Internet access and modified for benign or malicious purposes, such as facilitating unauthorized access to restricted or sealed documents. Accordingly, CM/ECF filers are reminded to be diligent about their computer security practices to ensure that documents are not inadvertently shared or compromised.

The court and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts will continue to analyze the implications of RECAP or related-software and advise you of any ongoing or further concerns.
Of course, with this price hike, one wonders if the courts are really concerned about "security" or if they're concerned about losing out on a big chunk of cash that comes into the courts thanks to PACER. Apparently, that cash is being used for all sorts of things, way outside of what's allowed. The law that authorizes PACER to charge, makes it clear that it can only charge "reasonable fees" and then only to the extent necessary to fund the working of the system:
The Judicial Conference may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees, pursuant to sections 1913, 1914, 1926, 1930, and 1932 of title 28, United States Code, for collection by the courts under those sections for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.
And yet, reports have shown that PACER already collects a lot more money than is needed to run the system. And this price hike will only increase that. And while some of that money is going to fund additional technology in the courtroom, it's not clear that this is a legal or even best use of funds.
One example is a courtroom renovation one judge described at a 2010 conference. He said that as a result of PACER fees, "every juror has their own flatscreen monitors," and there are also monitors for members of the public to see. His courtroom also got the latest audio technology. "We just put in new audio so that peopleóI'd never heard of this beforeóbut it actually embeds the speakers inside of the benches in the back of the courtroom and inside counsel tables so that the wood benches actually perform as amplifiers," the judge said.
Not that we're against better technology in court, but it's not clear this is the best use of funds, when collecting less money but making the information more widely available might better serve the public interest.

And, really, you have to wonder why the court system needs PACER in the first place. In this age of easy and free delivery of information, why can't the courts release that content for free, and charge people just for paper printouts? And, as Tim Lee's article points out, there seem to be much better ways to handle such a distribution of content:
For example, there isn't just one PACER website for the whole country. Instead, there are actually around 200 separate PACER websites, each serving a different judicial district. Consolidating those 200 servers into a single website hosted from a modern data center would improve the user experience and dramatically reduce IT costs.

Indeed, Yu argued that the very concept of charging for copies of public records is misguided. He suggested that instead of jacking up fees in order to fund the development of a more elaborate PACER site, the courts should publish their raw data and allow private parties, from Google to the Internet Archive, to build websites using that data.

"Congress needs to consider funding PACER out of general appropriations," Yu told Ars. "It's really shutting people out from being able to learn the laws that they need to abide by in our society." Of course, if PACER were run in a cost-effective matter, and without a paywall, it would cost a lot less than $100 million.

Filed Under: federal courts, fees, pacer, public access

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 12:04pm


    If you are only interested, you do what anyone else with an expensive hobby does: they pay.

    Most of the big cases (and the ones most likely to be cited in these sorts of legal actions) are online, and have been referenced over and over again. If you can't find them, you truly have failed.

    Perhaps the real issue here is that people who have absolutely nothing to do with the legal system are business complaining about it, rather than actually doing something productive with their time.

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