Civil Liberties

The Feds Make a Killing by Overcharging for Electronic Court Records

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If you want to find a federal court case—say, to look up the latest juicy filing in the prosecution of one of Donald Trump's indicted cronies—odds are you'll hold your nose and log on to the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) website, a system run by the federal judiciary.

It's an old and clunky platform, running on the best interface the mid-1990s had to offer. Which might be excusable if it were free, but it's not.

PACER charges 10 cents a page for court records and searches. There's a $3 cap on large documents, and users pay nothing if their bill is under $15 per quarter. This keeps most casual users from needing to pony up—but for news organizations, researchers, and legal professionals, costs can pile up quickly.

According to the E-Government Act of 2002, PACER is only supposed to charge enough to cover its operating costs. Instead, it's a slush fund for the U.S. court system. PACER has raked in about $145 million annually over the last few years while incurring about $3 million per year in costs. Even the Justice Department has to pay to use PACER—124 million taxpayer dollars between 2010 and 2017.

"PACER is the only major government system that charges by the click, and access to federal court dockets is one of the most important government databases we have," says Carl Malamud, a prominent public domain advocate. "Distribution of documents on the internet at costs that resemble 1970s copyshop fees is ridiculous in today's day and age."

Several class-action lawsuits, backed by media outlets and pro-transparency groups, have been filed in recent years and are currently winding their way through the system.

In the meantime, some vigilante coders have come up with workarounds to the PACER paywall. A project called RECAP created a browser extension that, when installed, uploads any court docket or document that a PACER user views to a free website and lists which filings are already available. USA Today investigative reporter Brad Heath created Big Cases Bot, an automated program that monitors notable cases, uploads filings to DocumentCloud (another free repository of public information), and tweets out newly added records almost as soon as they're available.

But none of this fixes the fundamental problem, which is that PACER is operating beyond its charter to the detriment of public access to the law.

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  1. PACER charges 10 cents a page for court records and searches.

    To be clear, PACER charges not just for printing out pages, it charges you just to look at the page to see if you want to print it out. It’s one thing to be looking at a specific case but when you’re looking up precedential rulings on a specific topic and there’s hundreds of cases with the key word you’re searching, you have to pull up the case just to see if it addresses the issue you’re looking for and you’re getting charged just to see that this case has nothing to do with what you’re looking for.

  2. but for news organizations, researchers, and legal professionals, costs can pile up quickly

    So?

    Someone with a background in this please explain how Pacer relates to Westlaw and LexisNexis.

    1. Westlaw and LexisNexis publish decisions on the merits of the case, not witness lists, rulings on motions, etc.

    2. Pacer is an electronic government records repository. Westlaw and LexisNexis are value added editorial services that make use of government records.

  3. That reminds me, I really should do that document dumb today. It shouldn’t take long for me to upload the pages.

  4. I wish my local state court had PACER. No documents online, you have to go in person, and copies are $2 a page. No cell phones permitted in the office. Now THERE’S a scam.

    1. You’re paying for the clerk. $2 per page is cheap because those clerks are lazy and expensive.

      The professionals take portable scanning machines to scan the court documents.

      1. Those portable scanning machines are banned, too. I should really file a lawsuit.

        1. Yeah, thats bullshit.

          There is no good reason to prevent anyone from viewing files at the clerk’s office and scan them. Unless the files are under seal.

    2. You have a 1st amendment right to video in any public area of any public building.

  5. PACER has raked in about $145 million annually over the last few years while incurring about $3 million per year in costs. Even the Justice Department has to pay to use PACER—124 million taxpayer dollars between 2010 and 2017.

    The court clerks already spend their time scanning filed documents into the Court’s system and parties filing documents do the human work for the clerks. Most Prisoners, who file appeals from jail and prison, cannot access these court records online.

    There should be a far cheaper, easier, and more transparent public court document system available.

  6. So, a government service actually generates positive revenue by providing a product that its users demand and are willing to pay for, and there’s no coercive taxation of non-users? Help me understand the problem…

    1. There is a cheaper and better market solution to provide public access to court documents.

      reason is not really on board that that concept though.

    2. No competition.

    3. You must have missed the part where it literally is against the law for the service to generate net revenue.

    4. If you need to access court documents in the first place, there was probably some coercion leading to that situation. It’s also a matter of transparency. Court rulings help someone understand the law. It is like charging drivers a fee to see the speed limit signs.

  7. I just got jacked harder than this for some local court docs I had to pull up. It would suck to be a major consumer of such docs and be paying out the ass… But for the regular person, having to pony up a few bucks once in a blue moon isn’t THAT big a deal.

    Of all the things to be outraged at government about, this one is definitely NOT towards the top of my list.

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