If you’ve ever had the good fortune of doing legal research, you’ve likely had an encounter with PACER. PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, is the electronic service that provides access to court records. These records are pivotal for journalists providing accurate and quality news. PACER provides original, verifiable sources that answer journalists’ questions or help them understand the right questions to ask on important issues.
During Sunshine Week and every day, journalists need easy access to verifiable sources more than ever to report the truth about government activity to the public.
But unfortunately, PACER is far from perfect. Anyone who has used PACER can testify to its antiquated design, clunky search functions, and difficult-to-navigate software. There are also separate databases for different courts, meaning there is no uniform way to file, track or save information about a case.
Perhaps even worse than providing a below-average product, PACER charges fees for every search and document download, at a rate of $0.10 per page. While 10 cents may not seem like much, some searches garner many pages of search results, and court filings are known for their length. Though PACER’s fees are capped at $3.00 per document, these fees add up.
The electronic system is entitled to charge these fees by statute, but the fees are to be imposed “only to the extent necessary,” and must be “reasonable.” But with PACER bringing in about $142 million annually in revenue, it seems these fees are neither “necessary” nor “reasonable.”
Now, a Bill is moving through Congress to address the problems with PACER. The Open Courts Act of 2021, or Free PACER Bill, will not only eliminate the fees currently associated with PACER, but it will also modernize the antiquated search engine. While PACER is now clunky, dated and hard to use, the Act will ensure an updated, reliable, streamlined site to file, read and monitor court documents and dockets.
The Bill has garnered bipartisan support. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) said, “PACER was intended to create a level playing field for small-time litigants, small business, civil society, journalists, and citizens who care about transparency in government. However, with its frustrating interface and fees, PACER has done the opposite. The American people should have easy access to the court records of their country, and this bipartisan, consensus legislation will fix the problem once and for all by putting in place a free, streamlined system with an emphasis on security, accessibility, affordability, and performance.”
Similarly, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) voiced his support, saying, “For far too long, unnecessary paywalls have kept the American people from freely accessing public court records. The Open Courts Act will deliver a long-overdue upgrade to PACER, totaling a savings of more than a hundred million dollars a year in operating costs. Federal courts will then be able to remove burdensome paywalls and provide the public, including researchers and journalists, with free access to public court documents.”
It is far past time that Americans had easy and unencumbered access to these public documents, and Congress should take action now by passing the Open Courts Act of 2021.
Natalie Seales is a First Amendment Law and Policy Fellow at the News Media Alliance.