from the your-government-not-at-work dept
[INT: Midwestern living room, Christmas morning 2022]:
Children: Thanks for all of these consumer goods, Daddy. We know you mean well. But we just want to know whether we’ll ever see free access to federal courtroom documents in our lifetime.
Me: [long pause while stroking my magnificent beard] I don’t know, kids. I just don’t know.
[ENTER STAGE RIGHT, a cloaked figure carrying a big book or something]: Let me show what life would be like if Breckin Meyer had never been born! [smoke effect]
Cloaked figure: I’m sorry. I think I have the wrong address. Excuse me. [different smoke effect]
This dramatization of recent events omits or alters a few key details. I will correct those here:
- My children are in their late teens and have not called me “Daddy” for more than a decade.
- My children, despite their advanced age, have never accessed a federal court document, nor have they expressed any desire to do so.
- I don’t have a beard, magnificent or otherwise.
- Breckin Meyer is undoubtedly respected in his field.
- “Who” is the correct response.
Back to the issue at hand. PACER — the federal system for online access to court documents — is a Web 0.5 abomination. Despite collecting millions in fees every year, the system has not seen any serious upgrades to elevate it to the bare minimum web users expect… like utilizing a functional search system, or fixing its habit of incorrectly calculating “pages” to the point of being sued.
For years, legislators have attempted to make PACER access free. And it definitely should be. After all, taxpayers have already paid for the creation of the documents and dockets the US Courts system feels comfortable charging $0.10/page to access as though internet users were burning through toner cartridges with every PDF download or docket page served up online.
The obscene amount the federal court system collects from PACER users is supposed to be used to update online systems and, believe it or not, lower costs for PACER users. That has not happened. Instead, the federal judiciary has used this windfall to make things better for those who physically show up at courthouses, purchasing big screen TVs and comfy chairs for those watching and/or overseeing these proceedings. Left out of the equation are the millions of Americans who pay in but never see the court machinery pay out.
The only entity standing between us and free PACER access is the federal court system. It has been the only one to argue (without evidence) that it would cost taxpayers billions to give those same taxpayers free PACER access. Legislators have yet to surmount this single barrier, suggesting free access isn’t the priority they claim it is when they author bills. (To be fair, legislators have a lot of issues to address at any given time. To be less fair [but perhaps more honest], legislators don’t have to pay for their PACER access, which means allowing these bills to die doesn’t affect their personal bottom lines.)
The judiciary has claimed free access would require an offset of nearly $2 billion a year. Researchers and legislators took a look at these claims and called bullshit. In their estimation, free PACER access would only result in a net loss of a little over $1 million/year. Roughly a year later, the Congressional Budget Office announced its findings. The CBO concluded it would actually make the government money to give free access to millions of Americans while only charging fees to PACER “whales,” which tend to be large corporations engaged in litigation and/or trawling PACER to scour documents filed in federal court by their competitors.
Enacting the Open Courts Act would generate $175 million in net revenues over a decade, offsetting the $161 million in mandatory spending the bill would prompt…
So, on one hand, we have a federal court system that truly loves buying TVs and couches with the money it’s supposed to be using to cut PACER costs for Americans. On the other, we have NGOs, legislators, First Amendment advocates, and members of the general public advocating for free PACER access. And we have a single, extremely self-interested party claiming it’s prohibitively expensive to serve up PDFs and search results in an era of dirt cheap storage and ubiquitous internet use.
Who would win?
Well, as Reuters reports, it would be the horse-sized duck, as personified by the US Courts system and legislators apparently unwilling to add a bill that would save the government money to the latest government spending bill.
U.S. lawmakers have left a proposal to make the federal judiciary’s PACER online court records system free out of a sprawling, $1.66 trillion spending measure unveiled on Tuesday, a setback for advocates as the current Congress nears its end.
Supporters of the Open Courts Act had been pushing to get the stalled, bipartisan legislation attached to the omnibus spending measure, which boosts overall spending on the judiciary by nearly 6% to $8.461 billion in fiscal year 2023.
Unfortunately, the Reuters report relies on “facts” delivered by the judiciary, which continues to insist it would cost millions to cede any ground to taxpayers. This self-serving estimate has been undercut repeatedly, and yet it somehow remains a reprinted talking point whenever free PACER access is up for debate. Reuters repeats it here, which does nothing but serve a judiciary that would rather rake in discretionary funds year after year, rather than increase the level of service it’s obligated to provide to the public.
I don’t know which legislators are to blame for this failure to push through an amendment that, at worst, would break even. But I’m going to blame somebody. This is unvarnished horseshit.
Rather than mandating changes to PACER, lawmakers in an accompanying explanatory statement said they would be expecting the judiciary to update them on its already-underway plans to modernize PACER and a related electronic case management system.
The US Courts system has had years to update PACER with the fees it collects. It hasn’t. All this statement says is that government business will continue as usual, which means PACER will still be an overpriced clusterfuck and that their constituents can expect to be charged ridiculous rates for PDF downloads for the foreseeable future.
There are several big issues the federal government needs to address. And maybe this one seems unimportant in that context. But to hold off on pushing this through reeks of laziness, if not cowardice. The US Courts system has yet to show it has any interest in improving PACER. And its math has been called into question multiple times. When a budget is passed, it makes sense to add efforts that may, at worst, break even. And legislators couldn’t even do that here.
PACER still sucks. It still costs too much. The system overseeing it is engaged in illegal use of PACER funds. But that’s the status quo legislators have decided to protect. I’m sorry, kids. For now, free PACER remains just as theoretical as a Breckin Meyer Golden Globes nomination.