PACER Deleting Old Cases; Time To Fix PACER

from the down-the-memory-hole dept

For years, we've talked about the many problems with PACER, the horribly designed and managed electronic court records system that the federal court system uses here in the US. Beyond being clunky, buggy, horribly designed and slow -- it's also expensive. With some exceptions, it's 10 cents per page you download, and also 10 cents per search. As many have noted, this almost certainly violates the law concerning PACER, which says that the Judicial Conference can only "prescribe reasonable fees… to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services." And yet the fees go way, way beyond what's needed to maintain the (again, horrible) system which they refuse to update. Instead, it's used for lots of other things. And, as many people note, it's something of a travesty that all of these public records are locked up, rather than being made available. Even more ridiculous is that when people hack around this system, such as with the open RECAP project to free up PACER documents, courts freak out. Or, when people like Aaron Swartz try to use free access to PACER to free up its documents, they end up being the subject of an FBI investigation for computer hacking.

Aaron Greenspan, who runs an open court records site called Plainsite (and who is currently engaged in an unlikely-to-succeed lawsuit arguing that PACER should be free), has noticed that PACER is also shoving old cases down the memory hole so they will no longer be available. In a brief announcement on August 10th, PACER's website announced that a bunch of cases would "no longer be available."
Now, there have always been some cases not on PACER, but to actively start removing a bunch of cases, including many that are fairly recent (CAFC cases from just two years ago?!?) seems ridiculous and excessive. Yes, PACER is horribly designed and managed, but it's not like the storage costs for some old PDFs is that high. Especially as storage keeps getting cheaper and cheaper. Does someone down at the Administrative Office of the US Courts want me to send them an external 2 TB hard drive? They run about $100 these days...

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2014 @ 3:54pm

    They cannot afford a disc drive for public records, but can pay for Bluffdale and all its records of the public. Definitely a government that wants to know in detail what its are doing, while hiding what it is up to from them.

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

  2. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Aug 25th, 2014 @ 3:57pm

    They just want to make sure no one can see how the law actually works, and point to that time when it protected people not corporate people.

    But hey the value of the access they've been selling to the data brokers just went up... I wonder who will be retiring to a nice new job at LN.

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

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2014 @ 4:10pm

    I can't believe I'm saying this

    But Greenspan is actually trying to do something good for once!

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

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2014 @ 4:59pm

    So far behind.

    "external 2 TB hard drive? They run about $100 these days"

    Just bought two, along with another Raspberry Pi to run the NAS made up of USB drives.

    Nothing like rebooting the computer acting as your server to mess up things for other devices unnecessarily, like the movie I was watching stops, and reboots all around to re-recognize.

    Now the governments issues are different. There is certainly sufficient technology to serve the documents, all the documents, cheaply (and unlike my solution above, safely) and distribute them for free, as they should, and probably reduce costs. It take extra money to implement limitations.

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

  5. identicon
    Gene, Aug 25th, 2014 @ 5:38pm

    Aggregating PACER

    I've been building a system and website to access PACER records at a fixed cost, with the intent of providing open access to certain types of users. Would love some help from interested people (especially those in greater Boston) -- the project is Python/Django + a lot of scraping tech :)

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

  6. icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), Aug 25th, 2014 @ 7:21pm


    They cannot afford a disc drive for public records, but can pay for Bluffdale [...]

    Of course. Public records are used against the government; therefore, they must be locked up so the government can abuse its citizens in peace. Or if not abuse, well, public records are very not a priority.

    But records on all those potential terro...*ahem*...all those awesome citizens, well, those are a priority, because those help us control the citizens.

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

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 25th, 2014 @ 9:22pm

    This might actually work in our favor. The Supreme Court has long recognized that "copies" of records must be made available, and if they're no longer on PACER, that means they will have to be available from the courts, at cost. The way they get away with the PACER fees is by saying the documents can be viewed for free at the courts, but if you want copies of them, you have to pay (10 cents a physical page or electronic "page," which is bs of course). If they can no longer be obtained on PACER, there's an extremely strong case that digital copies must be provided electronically.

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

  8. icon
    Ninja (profile), Aug 26th, 2014 @ 3:29am


    My first thought. I'd point ironically to Bluffdale if some politician gave space as an excuse to delete pdfs...

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

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2014 @ 4:26am


    Given that it's "clunky, buggy, horribly designed and slow" (taking your word for it, since I've never used it), I can think of a possible reason for them to remove older cases: their system's architecture can deal only with a limited number of cases.

    It might be a performance problem which gets worse the more cases they have available. It might be a design restriction which causes it to break if there are above a certain number of cases (like the issue slashdot had a long time ago when the number of comments no longer fit on a 4 byte integer). It might be that the older cases have their metadata formatted differently than the newer cases, and they want to make a change which needs the newer metadata. And so on.

    Whatever the true cause is, it's not going to be something that simply adding a new drive could fix (if they can even add a new drive; the cause might be that their architecture limits the number of drives).

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

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2014 @ 7:24am

    Re: Architecture

    Even if that sort of thing was the problem, that's no excuse not to have a simple dump of all the PDFs on a server with stable URLs and let the general public figure out how to index them.

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

  11. identicon
    David Lewis, Aug 26th, 2014 @ 7:29am


    A couple of points. Judge Newman (C.J. of the Second Circuit) advocated a free pacer in the early '90's and got overruled by the other courts. The cases disappearing from the Second Circuit are those prior to the inclusion of the actual documents filed and are less important than the more recent docket sheets, which include links to documents and thus actually show what is going on substantively in a case. Not to say they aren't useful on occasion. I don't think it's so clunky, but I've got free access through work.

    But what are they doing with cases like the one of the guy who called me, having been convicted ca. 1990 and still on supervised release (like parole) with occasional active entries. They shouldn't be wiping his case out, I had to refer to it to advise him.

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

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 26th, 2014 @ 1:08pm

    "Yes, PACER is horribly designed and managed"

    No its not. Its perfectly designed and does precisely what it is suppose to do, in exactly the manner it was designed to do it. In fact, its a showcase example of how to pretend to serve the public while doing everything possible to prevent public access.

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

  13. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 26th, 2014 @ 1:47pm

    Re: Architecture

    All of the problems you cite can be fixed without losing any old data. And with the usurious charges Pacer demands, they should have plenty of money to fix their problems.

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

  14. identicon
    KRA, Aug 26th, 2014 @ 10:03pm


    For the first time ever last week I tried to look something up on PACER and wondered if it was just me.

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

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 27th, 2014 @ 3:46am


    It would make an interesting test case for a totally broke person (maybe a child or someone homeless) were to commit an offence which does not appear to be illegal based on the plain reading of the relevant legislation and is not "intuitively" illegal but which has been interpreted as being illegal, and to then claim that had he had no way to know that his actions were illegal because he could not afford to pay for access the the relevant documents, let alone obtain legal advice.

    That might just about work because although a person has the responsibility to find out what the law is rather than just acting and claiming ignorance, if they cannot find out what the law is it would be unjust to penalise someone for breaking it. (I wouldn't encourage anyone to try to set up such a situation, but it might be worth trying for an otherwise hopeless case.)

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

  16. identicon
    AnonyBabs, Aug 27th, 2014 @ 10:46am

    Re: I can't believe I'm saying this

    I think you may be confusing your Greenspans.

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

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