Making sense of the new PACER bill

There is plenty of room for constructive compromise, but it requires everyone to acknowledge that “free” PACER is not actually free.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, H.R. 8235, by a voice vote. The bill would radically reform access to federal court records by requiring (among other things) that the courts’ PACER system be modernized and its contents made free to the public. The bill drew praise from open courts advocates, and furious pushback from the Judicial Conference and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Indeed, the Judicial Conference’s reaction was probably the most vigorous response I have seen from the courts in many years.

It is a rare piece of legislation these days that can simultaneously garner bipartisan support and solicit institutional panic from the judicial branch. So it’s worth examining closely. What we find is an opportunity for the court system to improve its transparency and its own performance, albeit not on the schedule or in the manner it would prefer. Continue reading “Making sense of the new PACER bill”

Illinois approves notification of court dates by text message

Another misleading headline: Illinois Supreme Court approves new rule allowing for an expansion of text messaging in courts.

No, people are not actually allowed to send text messages while in court. Rather, the new rule permits individual court administrators in Illinois to implement text message notification programs. The primary goal seems to be getting people to show up for their court dates.

Text messaging programs are a supplement and not a substitute for any notification required by Supreme Court Rule and any failure to participate in a text messaging program will not be considered or used as evidence against the person in any court proceeding.

Participants will be afforded the ability to opt out of the program at any time.

The phone information provided and collected for the purpose of inclusion in a text message notification program under the new Rule will not be made part of the official public court record and shall not be utilized for any other purpose.

An eminently sensible change.

Western District of Pennsylvania to halt jury trials for three months

As COVID-19 cases begin to rise in the Pittsburgh area, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania has announced a halt to nearly all jury trials until at least February 8, 2021. Law.com explains:

The unavailability of health care workers, high-risk citizens, those who rely on now-limited public transit, “and those who will face substantial childcare challenges arising from the renewed closure of schools … creates a serious impact” on jury selection, the court said.

The situation would demand “ever-larger jury venire pools for potential service and potentially diminish … the representative nature of the pool of summoned jurors,” the court said.

For criminal defense lawyers, they are experiencing huge challenges in being able to communicate with their clients behind bars, a necessity for a fair defense, the order said.

Unfortunately, this is probably just the first of many orders that will similarly affect state and federal courts this winter.

In-person jury trials to resume in Brooklyn

For the first time in seven months, Brooklyn courts will begin to hold jury trials inside courthouses. A number of safety measures have been implemented, including temperature checks, plexiglass screens, and upgraded air filtration systems.

During the last several months, a number of courts worldwide held jury trials outdoors or in large, socially distanced venues. As winter approaches (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), trials will have no choice but to move indoors. Hopefully they prove to be safe and successful.

Webinar on funding for court access during pandemic

The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted a webinar last month with an eye toward helping courts and civil justice stakeholders secure funding to assist with court access during the COVID-19 pandemic. The details, including the link to the webinar recording, can be found here.

ABA passes resolution on remote court proceedings

The American Bar Association House of Delegates has passed a resolution regarding the use of remote proceedings. The resolution attempts to balance the courts’ need to move forward with their dockets, parties’ entitlement to due process, and the public right to access. Some key points:

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that any authorization of mandatory use of virtual and remote court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic continue for as short a time as possible and in no event longer than the duration of the declaration of emergency issued in the jurisdiction;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that use of virtual or remote court proceedings be permitted when litigants have consented to the use of such procedures, including being offered a delay until a safe, in-person proceeding can be held;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that all virtual or remote court proceedings be tailored to the needs of participants and take into account the type of case and proceeding to be conducted, the participants involved, and whether participants are likely to be represented by counsel…

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that advance notice be provided to the public of all virtual or remote proceedings and that full and meaningful public access to such proceedings be guaranteed, while also protecting the privacy of those proceedings legally exempted from public access…

The entire resolution can be found here.

Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision

After a two-and-a-half year wait, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the decision of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in National Veterans Legal Services et al. v. United States. The plaintiffs in that case argued that the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts exceeded their statutory authorization by using PACER fees to fund internal court projects that were unrelated to the administration of the PACER system itself. (PACER is part of the federal courts’ electronic filing system, which allows the public to access most documents that are filed for a 10 cent/page fee.) The government argued that funding the additional projects did not exceed the court’s authority.

In March 2018, on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Huvelle split the difference, concluding as a matter of statutory interpretation that the courts had properly used PACER fees to fund certain projects–including the development of the electronci filing system itself–but had overstepped its bounds in using funds to provide electronic notice to jurors, assist with state court records in Mississippi, and other tangential projects. (I previosuly explored Judge Huvelle’s opinion, and the policies underlying the larger question of PACER fees, here.)

The Federal Circuit concluded that Judge Huvelle’s opinion “got it just right.” But it also added its own gloss on the relationship between the courts and the other branches of government, as seen through the lens of PACER revenue. Continue reading “Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision”

Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology

On June 25, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled Federal Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Best Practices, Opportunities for Innovation, and Lessons for the Future. The hearings featured testimony (via Zoom, of course) from federal district judge David Campbell, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, former federal district judge (and current Executive Director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute), and Melissa Wasser of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The testimony was interesting, as was the choice of witnesses. The entire hearing (all 102 minutes of it) can be found directly below, with some thoughts on what transpired to follow.

Continue reading “Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology”

Courthouses continue to open, carefully

As communities across the United States slowly reopen for business, courthouses are following suit. Extensive precautions and protocols are in place. I have periodically tracked how some court systems have begun their reopening processes, and here is one more: New Mexico resumes jury trials with masks, plexiglass, and cameras.

If these stories seem repetitive, it is only because I am trying to capture a taste of a very unusual time in our history. Many of the lessons to be drawn from this experience will only emerge after a period of reflection and analysis.

 

Federal courts grapple with resumption of grand juries

As courthouses across the country slowly begin to reopen, individual federal district courts are wrestling with the best way — if at all — to convene grand juries for criminal cases. Bloomberg Law has a good article exploring some of the approaches that different courts are taking. Among them: holding grand jury proceedings in the courthouse with social distancing, holding proceedings entirely online, and simply waiting to convene grand juries until the situation improves.

Each approach obviously has strengths and weaknesses. There are the obvious health concerns about bringing people into a building. But there are also important countervailing considerations. Purely online proceedings may not allow for a fair cross-section of the community, since essential workers and those without adequate internet access (among others) may not be able to participate. At the same time, simply waiting for the pandemic to subside is inconsistent with the efficient administration of justice. As time passes, memories fade and witnesses become harder to find.

So there is no simple answer here. But a system in which courts have the discretion to tailor their approaches allows court leaders to collectively learn from their successes and setbacks.