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.

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    abc gum, 16 Sep 2011 @ 4:32am

    "Please be aware that RECAP is "open-source" software, which can be freely obtained by anyone"

    Oh Noes - open source - everyone panic!

    That's some scary stuff right there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 6:01am

    Swimming in cash?

    It sounds more like they are charging appropriately, considering the other costs involved in legal action, and putting that money to work to help speed to process overall and to make sure that the best technology is available for all cases.

    It seems like a win all around.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 6:04am


    I admire your faith in government entities and constructions being able to bring in and spend money appropriately.

    And by admire, I mean disdain and abhore, which I believe are synonyms....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 6:30am


    Of course you think that, because you don't think that the government already has a budget paid for by the people by taxes and now they have to pay again because the government can't get their heads out of their asses and manage money in a responsible way.

    You also don't think that laws should available to anyone just those who can pay for it right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 7:18am

    Re: Re:

    10 cents a page. If that is enough to stop your legal battle, perhaps you have bigger issues to address.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Pitabred (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 7:34am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Why does it have to be a battle? Perhaps that fee is more than I'm willing to pay to satisfy my curiosity, or want to learn. Or even better, some school kid's.

    But even more importantly... how can you defend any increase in fees that's not directly tied to administration costs that makes it more difficult for you to know what laws you're expected to obey? The US wasn't founded as a nation of "secret" laws. We shouldn't have to pay to know what is and is not legal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Jay (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 7:40am

    The price increase is certainly misguided. What happens if you're interested in a specific topic, such as copyright law, and looking for precedents set by it through a certain amount of cases? Looking up the Perfect 10 lawsuits, plus the Youtube v Viacom lawsuits and seeing their precedents runs counter to making quite a bit by charging for access.

    Has anyone seen why they want to charge more? Is there a central trust fund that this goes to?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 8:08am

    I've been using PACER for many years.

    The PACER system allows each party to a case a "free look." You get an email to your registered address with a link to the document. Click the link and you have the document in PDF format to save locally and do what you want with... FREE OF CHARGE. Once you have the document via the free look you don't need to pay again for anything you choose to do with your copy.

    You only have to pay if you need to go back and view documents via PACER again, if you want to view documents in cases where you are not a party, or to run reports to extract data from the court.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Berenerd (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 8:33am

    Re: Re: Re:

    If you are a homeless person, working with a lawyer who is doing things probono...lets say there is 3000 pages that adds up quickly. Judging by your statements you are made of money so, how about you donate some of that money so you can pay for the useless crap that they overspend on?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    WysiWyg (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 8:44am

    First of, let me point out the silver lining; 10 cents per page makes the math a lot easier than 8 cents. ;-)

    Second; why charge per page, or even document, at all? Wouldn't it be more sane to charge a subscription fee, or something like that?

    Then again, the only sane way of doing this is to not have a fee at all. One of the core basics of democracy is to allow the people to keep an eye on the courts, and make sure that they don't go bonkers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Atkray (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 9:03am

    Yet another government program reaches the point where it takes on a life of its own.

    No killing it now, it has learned how to grow.

    Also, PACER has a low amount, I think it is $10 a quarter you can access for free.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    bob, 16 Sep 2011 @ 9:10am


    "the wood benches actually perform as amplifiers"

    What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 80?

    "Your Honor"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Tallen, 16 Sep 2011 @ 10:43am

    Re: Dear Pacer

    I failed to read where it was helping to 'speed the process' maybe you're pacer and know

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Tallen, 16 Sep 2011 @ 10:48am


    They could maybe make a law the courts have to abide by and call it 'The Freedom of Information Act'. Oh yea, the government doesn't like to be restricted by laws

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 12:02pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    If you are a homeless person involved in a legal action that runs 3000 pages, you have bigger problems than the $300 it takes to print it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    PrometheeFeu (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 12:19pm


    My guess is they charge per page because they have to scan the documents. But that's a wild guess based on no information.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    PrometheeFeu (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 12:21pm

    "the wood benches actually perform as amplifiers"

    Man, can you imagine how awesome it would be when you bench, the table in front of you and every object in the room is the booming voice of the judge? I mean seriously, I am considering dropping my current career and running off to law-school just so I can have such god-like powers!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    Jay (profile), 16 Sep 2011 @ 1:14pm

    Re: Re:

    So let's get this straight.

    Because I'm not a lawyer or attorney at law, I have no access to public records, no matter how little or how much it is. I can't look up and reference all of the articles and decisions made in the history of MY country of birth because I didn't pay a fee.

    And for that small injustice, when I want to change my naive notion that more access to information allows me to make better decisions, you decide to try to dismiss it by saying "you're whining?"

    Are you sure that's what you want to say?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Sep 2011 @ 1:44pm

    Re: Re:

    If you file in more than 3 cases in a district you are required to file everything electronically (though you can file a motion to be exempted).

    There is very little scanning going on at any of the PACER courts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.