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.