The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”

The state of state judiciaries

It’s the time of year for State of the Judiciary addresses in many states, an opportunity for the Chief Justice of the state to provide the new state legislature with an update on the court system, including its strategic plans and ongoing resource needs. Several State of the Judiciary speeches have been reported in the news, allowing us to get a broad sense of what state courts are planning/hoping for in the coming year. More after the jump. Continue reading “The state of state judiciaries”

For some state judges, lobbying is part of the job description

One of the most important themes of judicial interdependence is resource dependence. By conscious design, courts cannot produce or directly obtain many of the resources that they need to operate. These resources include immediate, survival-level needs like adequate funding and staffing, but they also include less tangible resources like public trust and legitimacy, and long-term needs like enabling legislation.

For better of for worse, most of the courts’ needed resources are in the hands of the legislature. Congress and state legislatures allocate funds to the judicial branch, determine the number of judges that the courts will have and the conditions upon which those judges will be selected, enact statutes granting courts jurisdiction to hear cases and authority to manage their internal affairs, and set the public tone in the way they treat the courts and individual judges.

So it should not be surprising to see judges directly asking legislatures for resources from time to time. The U.S. Courts submit a formal budget request to Congress every year, and on several occasions federal judges have testified before Congress on bills that affect the judiciary’s operations. And at the state court level, it is all the more prevalent. Many state chief justices provide a formal State of the Judiciary speech to their respective legislatures at the start of a new year, in which they lay out the work of the state courts over the previous year and lobby for resources to sustain or improve operations. That lobbying process may coincide with the speech, but often starts beforehand and continues long into the legislative session.

Consider New Mexico. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura will present her State of the Judiciary speech on Thursday, but she has already set the groundwork for the courts’ legislative “ask.” Several days ago, she sat down with the editors of the Albuquerque Journal. That access enabled the Journal to report, with considerable depth, that the state judiciary would pursue two constitutional amendments and several statutory changes in the upcoming legislative session. The constitutional changes would affect the timing of participation in judicial elections and the court’s ability to effectuate administrative transfers among courts. The statutory changes would set aside certain requirements with respect to appeals and jury service in order to make those processes more efficient. And of course, the courts are asking for additional funding for specific projects.

Chief Justices bear significant administrative responsibilities: they are the CEOs of their court systems as much as they are judges. In that capacity, a little legislative lobbying–and lobbying in the media–is very much fair game.

Shutdown starting to affect federal court operations

Although the federal court system managed to find sufficient “no year” funding to stay open one more week (until January 18), the ongoing federal government shutdown has begun to affect the system’s daily operations. Several district courts are reportedly staying some civil cases, especially those involving the U. S. government as a party. Courts are also cutting back on operational spending such as travel, supplies, and new equipment.

All court employees are continuing to receive full pay as of now, but if the shutdown continues beyond the 18th, non-essential employees would be furloughed and essential employees will continue to work without a paycheck. In small district courts like the Northern District of Iowa, staffing is already sufficiently thin that all employees would be considered essential even if funds were to run out.

As bad as this news is for the courts, it dramatically illustrates the importance and wisdom of the AO’s internal budgeting operations. As I have discussed elsewhere, it was not until the late 1930s that the federal court system obtained control over its own budget. Even though the courts cannot control how much money they receive from Congress, the ability to manage that money with forethought is exactly why they have been able to weather the shutdown (at least for now) while other federal government offices have closed or reduced operations.

Consider, for example, the dire situation at the Justice Department, where the Antitrust and Civil Divisions already have reportedly furloughed more than half of their staffs. As a Bloomberg story explains:

A continued shutdown could seriously hamper some of the civil division’s broad and crucial mandates that range from ensuring healthy market competition and weeding out Medicare fraud to defending the U.S. in lawsuits and recouping money for the Treasury. The effect could then spill over into the department’s criminal division and federal courts, a scenario that could jeopardize law enforcement nationwide.

Not good news. Not good at all.

 

The coming impact of the shutdown on the federal courts

The United States Courts will run out of funding this coming Friday, January 11. If the federal government is not funded and operating by that date, case processing will be immediately affected. While the likely impact will vary from district to district, it is certain that civil cases will suffer first, with trials and hearings being postponed as the courts dedicate their essential staff to criminal proceedings. Bloomberg Law has a good look at how the courts are handling the situation.

We are already starting to see some negative effects on civil cases in certain districts. Should the shutdown linger, one would expect to see existing civil cases settle at higher rates, and future cases filed either in state courts or in private arbitration settings. None of this, of course, is good business for the federal court system. Let’s hope there is a resolution soon.

 

Chief Justice releases Year-End Report

Per tradition, at 6 p.m. EST on December 31, Chief Justice John Roberts released his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Each year, the report focuses on one specific topic. For 2018, the topic–appropriately–was the work of the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct.

Many have already focused on the #MeToo aspect of this year’s report. I want to highlight something a bit different. Far beyond discussing the specific outcomes of the Working Group’s activities, Roberts spent quite a bit of time discussing the internal mechanisms by which the Working Group’s suggestions were implemented. He highlighted the roles of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the various Judicial Conference subcommittees that studied and implemented the Working Group’s recommendations. The enduring image is one of a slow, careful, and multi-layered process–exactly the image the Chief Justice was likely aiming for.

Although it never goes on for more than a few pages, the Year-End Report may be the most deliberately written document that the Chief Justice writes all year. One has the sense that every word had been carefully and repeatedly vetted. That the Chief would dedicate significant space to describing (even at a high level) the federal courts’ internal committee work is telling, and a welcome development for students of court organization.

Happy New Year to all.

Courts in India and Pakistan continue to struggle with congested dockets

Two recent end-of-year reports suggest that justice systems in India and Pakistan remain completely overwhelmed. In Pakistan, the docket of the apex court has more than doubled in five years, to more than 40,000 pending cases this year. This is unfortunately reminiscent of the terrible backlogs that India also continues to experience in its courts.

Part of the problem has to do with human resources: one report notes that India has fewer than 20 judges per million people, as compared to 51 judges per million people in the UK, and 107 judges per million people in the US. But it is also not appropriate to blame the docket crisis solely on not having enough judges. The court system needs to think more creatively–and frankly, work harder and smarter–about resolving cases efficiently.

Previous entries on India’s docket crisis can be found here, here, here, and here.