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”
Members of Congress have recently introduced several bills that would affect the staffing, administration, or jurisdiction of the federal courts. Among them:
- The Injunction Authority Clarification Act of 2018 would prevent a court from enforcing an injunction against a non-party to the suit, “unless the party is acting in a representative capacity pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Howard Wasserman has a good analysis of the bill here.
- The Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2018 would ensure free public access to public records on the federal courts’ PACER system. Members of the public are currently charged 10 cents per page to access documents online, unless they obtain a fee waiver from the individual court in which the case is pending. I know PACER can be a meaningful source of income for the court system, but I have long supported opening up PACER access without fee restrictions.
- The ROOM Act would add 52 new federal district judges, and would require the Supreme Court (by audio) and Courts of Appeal (by video) to stream their oral arguments live when possible, and otherwise with an archive delay. None of these proposals is new, and indeed the addition of district judges has long been requested by the courts themselves.
We’ll see if, and how, any of these nascent pieces of legislation develop.
It has been widely reported that President Trump is filling federal judicial vacancies at a much faster pace than his predecessors. But the political impact of that pace is blunted by several factors, including the fact that most existing vacancies were created by the retirement of a previous Republican appointee, and the fact that many circuit courts continue to be dominated by Democratic appointees.
Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution provides an outstanding analysis of the impact of the President’s judicial appointments here. It is highly recommended reading, as is everything Russell writes on this and related issues.
In what has become almost an annual rite, a member of Congress has introduced a bill to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into two. The new bill (S. 3259), proposed by Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, would also add 57 new judgeships around the country, and would additionally give permanent status to eight existing temporary judgeships.
Senator Sullivan explained:
“In 1970, Chief Justice Warren Burger warned that ‘a sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people,’ and cautioned that inefficiency and delay in our courts of appeals could destroy that confidence. Unfortunately, as it is currently constituted, the Ninth Circuit Court is inefficient, it delays, and therefore denies justice for millions of Americans. We cannot allow the confidence in our system of justice to be undermined by continuing a court of appeals that is so large and so unwieldy.”
The efficiency concerns are real, but this bill is probably going nowhere.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the most prominent Republican critics of President Trump, has stated that he “and a few other senators” plan not to vote on any more federal judicial nominations until Congress acts on other issues:
“I do think that unless we can actually do something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges, that we have no reason to be there,” Flake said. “So, I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us will stand up and say let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote for example on tariffs.”
“The Senate ought to bring legislation to the floor that says hey, we’re going to push back here,” Flake said. “The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat.”
Senator Flake is right about the need for Congress to step up and do its job in a rigorous and thoughtful manner. But it’s a damning indictment of that body that it cannot simultaneously govern the country and approve judicial nominees. Meanwhile, the federal court system continues to operate with many fewer judges than it believes necessary to do its work properly.
Representatives of the federal judiciary testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government today, issuing a budget request for $7.22 billion for Fiscal Year 2019. The request reflects an overall increase of 3.2 percent to maintain current services and fund priority initiatives — including $95 million for cybersecurity.
Seven billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but it represents a tiny fraction of the overall national budget (currently proposed at $4.41 trillion for FY19). The requested judicial budget is one percent of the White House’s 2019 allocation for national defense alone. It is, in the end, a remarkably small amount of money to fund the operations of an entire branch of government.
N.B. — in the link above, the U.S. Courts helpfully included a video of the entire hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee. Remarkably, this act of transparency did not hopelessly compromise the integrity of the federal judiciary. It’s time to bring similar video technology into the courtroom.
The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday advanced the nominations of four individuals for the federal bench. They are Ralph Erickson (8th Circuit), Donald Coggins Jr (D.S.C.), Dabney Friedreich (D.D.C.), and Steven Schwartz (Court of Federal Claims). Only Mr. Schwartz proved to be a controversial vote; he was passed 11-9.