Want to see the federal indictment of a mortgage fraudster? You got it. Need the docket for a U.S. appeals court case? It’s yours. All with the click of a mouse — and your 16-digit credit card number.
For a price, federal court filings have been available via the Internet through Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) system since the early 1990s. But its fee of 8 cents per page is too steep for public documents, critics say.
Steve Schultze, associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, says public access to federal courts is essential to U.S. democracy. “On the other hand, providing public access requires expenditure of funds. Charging for access works against public access,” he said.
To make federal court documents available for free, Schultze co-founded RECAP, a Firefox plug-in that PACER users can use to automatically donate the court documents they purchase from PACER into a public repository. RECAP will also alert users when a document they are searching for within PACER is already available in the repository.
“It’s true that the cost of running PACER has grown only slowly over time, but the profits have grown dramatically,” Schultze said last week at a Center for American Progress meeting to discuss Law.gov, a series of workshops discussing the potential for a registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States. Law.Gov would be similar to Data.Gov, providing bulk data and feeds to commercial, non-commercial, and governmental organizations wishing to build web sites, operate legal information services, or otherwise use the raw materials of our democracy.
PACER collected about $90 million in revenue in 2009, accompanied by what the federal judiciary calls a “carryforward” — revenue left after costs were paid — of $40 million, according to Schultze. His analysis found PACER fees have funded projects unrelated to electronic document access such as upgrading federal courtrooms with flat-screen monitors and enhanced audio systems.
“Fee revenue in some years has exceeded expenditures, but that money does not comprise a ‘surplus,’” said Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, the office responsible for the PACER system. “Rather, that money has been something of a war chest for future projects.”
Those future projects include updating the case file/electronic case management system through which each district federal court files all of its records and creating a “next generation PACER” which aims to be more searchable and user-friendly, according to Carelli.
PACER also competes with Westlaw and LexisNexis, which offer more sophisticated searching and display capabilities and charge higher fees for access.
The PACER system has already undergone some recent improvements. In addition to an enhanced search mechanism, this year it also began offering online digital recordings of court proceedings for $2.40 per file, compared to the previous fee of $26 for a CD copy from a court clerk’s office.
“We anticipate that the percentage of PACER users who do not pay a penny will climb to 75 percent in FY2010,” Carelli said. In March, the Judicial Conference decided to amend the fee schedule so that fees are waived for users who accrue less than $10 in costs per quarter. Previously, annual charges of $10 or less were waived.
“We believe we are good stewards of the fee revenue,” Carelli said, “and we are subject to Congressional oversight and annual audits. It costs a lot of money to maintain, modernize, and constantly secure the PACER system.”
ABOUT THE DATA
What: Federal court case filings
Where: Public Access to Electronic Court Records at www.pacer.gov
Usability: Searches can be cumbersome; each page of a court document costs 8 cents to view
The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.