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”

West Virginia considers new legislation affecting the courts

The West Virginia legislature has been busy introducing new bills that would affect the state courts. One bill would add magistrate judges to the court system and give all state magistrates a salary increase. Another bill would require that the state supreme court hear all appeals as of right.

Neither of these ideas is new — the magistrate bill was introduced without success in previous years, and the state supreme court already hears all appeals by court rule. But the bills are still significant. The magistrate bill acknowledges the continued resource needs of the court system in a state with a growing population. And the appeals bill, while merely codifying an existing practice, represents a carefully considered tradeoff between imposing burdens on the supreme court and the cost of creating an intermediate appellate court. At minimum, these bills are a sign that the legislature is thinking meaningfully about the needs of the court system after years of chaos within the judicial branch.

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.

Iowa legislature to consider radical changes to judicial nominating commission

Iowa has used a nominating commission to select its judges for more than half a century. As currently comprised, the commission includes a chair (the most senior justice of the state supreme court other than then chief justice) and sixteen members, half of whom are chosen by the governor and the other half of whom are chosen by the state bar association.

But new legislation, introduced by state senator Julian Garrett, would radically revise the composition of the commission, by stripping the state bar of all but one representative, and leaving the remaining members to be appointed solely by the governor. Garrett has called the existing system “unfair” and “undemocratic,” because the bar association appointees are not directly accountable to the electorate.

It’s worth emphasizing that the bill has only been introduced, and may never see passage. But it’s indicative, at least to me, of a growing skepticism of bar associations and the legal profession generally. This is likely connected to the overall skepticism of professional expertise that is on the rise on American culture. And it means that lawyers and judges will have to work harder, and in different ways, to convince legislators and citizens that their professional knowledge is used for the public good.

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.

Legislation introduced (again) to split the Ninth Circuit

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.

 

Thousands in Poland protest latest judicial reforms

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party continues to press reforms to that country’s judiciary which trample on judicial independence and the autonomy of the court system. The latest reforms, which would force dozens of judges into early retirement and allow the government to hand-pick their successors, drew thousands to the streets in protest late last week.

AFP reports:

Chanting “Shame!”, “Free courts!” and “We’ll defend democracy!”, several thousand protesters rallied in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw just hours after PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda signed into law a controversial measure effectively allowing the government to pick the next Supreme Court chief justice.

Warsaw lawyer Bozena Rojek, 68, said she had returned to protest on the same street where she had rallied against the Communist Party’s brutal 1981 martial law crackdown on the freedom-fighting Solidarity trade union. “I fought for democracy so that there would be free courts, so that we live in a free country with the rule of law,” she told AFP.

“Today everything’s crumbling right before our eyes,” Rojek added.