Lawmakers rekindled a bipartisan effort Wednesday to stop the federal government from selling access to public court filings, potentially eliminating lucrative fees otherwise putting millions of dollars annually in the country’s coffers.
Sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins, Georgia Republican and Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act would abolish the paywall currently imposed on federal filings hosted on the government’s online database – the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system more commonly called “PACER” — in addition to ordering improvements meant to make the system both more secure and easier to access.
“Courts represent a cornerstone of our democracy. We expect them to deliver justice in public, open for any and all to inspect, and this goal can’t be achieved when case filings and other documents are shrouded behind a paywall,” said Mr. Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “Overcharging Americans to view public court records through the PACER System is unreasonable.”
“The American people deserve free access to federal court records, and courts deserve a modernized way of maintaining those documents,” added Mr. Quigly, co-founder and co-chair of the Transparency Caucus. “The Electronic Court Records Reform Act (ECRRA) achieves both of those goals and is a prime example of a common-sense initiative to increase transparency and accountability.”
PACER charges 10 cents per page for members of the public to search and skim its database of court filings, and the cost to access a single document is capped at $3.00.
Ruling last year on a federal court case challenging PACER fees, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle said that the system had reaped $920 million from users between 2010 and 2016.
Revenue generated through fees paid by PACER’s million-plus users is allocated toward ongoing program operations and related development and maintenance costs, as well as financing other courtroom technology, according to its website.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the government agency that operates PACER, placed the annual cost of operating the system at $30 million in 2009, Wired reported previously.
Representatives for the agency did not immediately return a request for comment.
Judge Huvelle, a Clinton appointee, ruled last year that the agency misused millions of dollars collected through PACER fees by allocating that revenue toward funding other courtroom technology. Her decision is currently being challenged by the government in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.