PACER “can never be free”

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled “Federal Judiciary in the 21st Century: Ensuring the Public’s Right of Access to the Courts.” Like much of what Congress does, the hearing featured a lot of pomp and circumstance with relatively little substance. But there was an interesting revelation from U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig, who (along with U.S. District Judge Richard Story) testified before the Subcommittee on public access to the work of the federal courts. Specifically, Judge Fleissig asserted that “Our case management and public access systems can never be free because they require over $100 million per year just to operate.”

The $100 million figure was new to me. That is a lot of money. Now I suspect that the external part of that system — the PACER interface for public access — constitutes only a small part of that overall cost, and that most of the cost goes to internal case management software that the courts would use in any event. So perhaps Judge Fleissig is being a bit selective with her evidence.

Still, I am sympathetic to the statement that PACER can never be free. Someone has to pay for it–the direct users, the court system, or Congress.

I explored the PACER funding dilemma at length here. And I do not expect that a show hearing before a House Subcommittee would really explore these issues in depth. But I do hope (and expect) that someone — both in the court system and in Congress — is thinking about the PACER funding problem with the seriousness it deserves.

A dispiriting 230th birthday for the federal courts

On this day 230 years ago, President George Washington signed into law the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created our system of lower federal courts. The U.S. Constitution, ratified just a week earlier, limited its discussion of the judiciary to the Supreme Court and “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Yet Congress wasted no time creating thirteen new federal district courts (each populated by a single district judge), and three federal circuit courts, whose judges would “ride circuit” and hear cases across multiple states.

It was not a given that lower federal courts would in fact come into existence, at least not right away. In the early days of the Republic, state courts were expected to handle most cases, and a placement on the state court bench, not the federal bench, would have been the object of desire for most judicial aspirants. But the growth of federal law after the Civil War, and especially in the twentieth century, expanded the size and importance of the federal docket and  helped transform the federal courts into key players in American law, politics, and society. Last year, the federal district courts began processing almost 283,000 new cases.

Congress did not have to create the federal court system. But having done so, it has an ongoing obligation to provide the courts with the resources necessary to ensure the proper administration of justice. That means adequate funding, adequate staffing, and adequate institutional support. Lately, however, Congress has fallen short on all three counts. Continue reading “A dispiriting 230th birthday for the federal courts”

Longest federal judicial vacancy gets another nominee

A seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which has been vacant for nearly fourteen years, may finally be filled after President Trump nominated UNC law professor Richard E. Myers II for the position on Wednesday.

The vacancy, which has been in place since the end of 2005, is a testament to the dereliction of constitutional duties by both the executive and legislative branches. George W. Bush originally nominated attorney Thomas Farr to the seat, but Senate Democrats twice blocked the nomination. President Obama then offered two different nominees for the same seat during his eight years in office, only to have both nominations blocked by home-state Republicans. President Trump renominated Farr to the seat in 2017, but no vote ever came to the Senate floor.

Partisans will surely argue that each of the opposing party’s nominees was unacceptable, and that North Carolinians are better off with no judge than with a bad one. But tell that to the people who have had to wait longer for their cases to resolve.

Good luck to Professor Myers, who deserves better treatment than previous nominees and at least a speedy and fair up-or-down vote.

No vacancies, but a docket crisis nonetheless

I have been writing recently about the vacancy crisis in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, which has only 11 active judges despite a statutory entitlement to 17 (and a Judicial Conference recommendation for 20). But docket challenges can occur even where a court has its full complement of judges. This story highlights the docket overload in the Middle District of Louisiana, which has all three of its authorized judges in place but which still struggles to manage its docket, one of the heaviest in the nation.

Happily, it appears that Senator John Kennedy is continuing to push for more resources for the district. But in our fractured age, when every judicial appointment has taken on a (misplaced) political tint, it’s nearly impossible to expect that Congress will adequately address the resource need.

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”

Update on legislation affecting the federal courts

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.

Examining the impact of President Trump’s judicial appointments

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.