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”

Federal courts ask Congress for coronavirus assistance

The federal judiciary has asked Congress for $36.6 million in supplemental funding to work through the coronavirus pandemic. The money would be used for cleaning courthouses, enhanced medical screening, information technology updates, and other IT infrastructure, among other things. The judiciary is also seeking new legislation to toll certain bankruptcy deadlines, add new temporary judgeships, and protect litigants and detainees from unnecessary coronavirus exposure.

The letter setting out the requests is here.

The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.

Hoping not to be bullied is not a worthy strategy for a co-equal branch of government.

A little over two years ago, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) issued a new policy which barred its employees and staff from engaging in partisan political activity, including posting yard signs or making ordinary campaign donations. I predicted at the time that the First Amendment implications would likely turn the new policy into a headache for the AO.

And so it did. In May of 2018, two AO employees filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the policy violated their First Amendment right to engage in core political speech. Last week, the court agreed, granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs and promising to enter a permanent injunction preventing the AO from applying its policies to most of its employees. The court’s opinion is eye-opening, both for the district judge’s robust defense of First Amendment rights and for the AO’s cowardly view of the judiciary’s place in American society.

Continue reading “The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.”

Federal courts deliver guidelines for reopening

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has issued guidance regarding the opening of federal courthouses across the country. The guidelines envision a four-phase process, moving from the current scenario (most courthouses closed, hearings by phone or video, most employees working from home) through limited reopening with social distancing, and eventually a return to normal operations.

This is just a framework, not a schedule. The courts will not proceed along any opening path until data from the Center for Disease Control and other public health officials suggest that it is prudent to do so.

Federal courts develop coronavirus plan

As they have in other times of public emergency, the United States Courts have devised a plan to address operations in the event of a more widespread coronavirus outbreak. Many of the precautions are sensible and consistent with approaches taken by other public and private sector organizations:

[Administrator James] Duff suggested that federal courts “at a minimum” coordinate with human resources about “social distancing practices,” such as “teleworking, staying home when sick, and separation of potentially ill staff from others within the workplace.”

The memo also urged courts to emphasize good respiratory etiquette and hand-washing practices and ensure routine, regular cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace.

Courts should also be “implementing continuity procedures, issuance of applicable orders, and other measures as necessary to ensure the continuation of necessary court functions,” Duff’s memo states.

What is the right level of court system transparency?

Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.

Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.

These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.

Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”

U.S. Courts seek information on cloud services

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has issued an RFI seeking information on cloud-based services to support the federal judiciary’s current and future IT needs. While the judiciary is not yet seeking proposals or looking to hire a provider, it is very interested in learning about the implementation of cloud broker contracts within other areas of the federal government.

Another under-the-radar example of how the courts operate like major organizations quite apart from their public personae as robed oracles of the law.

Federal court filings increased by seven percent last year

That’s one immediate and important takeaway from the Annual Report of the Director of the U.S. Courts, published today. I shall have more to say about this once I have digested it — but business appears to be booming.

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”

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.