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.

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”

Japan: a land of many courts and relatively few judges

The Japan Times has an interesting article on the relatively small number of formal judges in that country, given its large number of courts. Japan has over 1,000 courts within its judicial hierarchy, but fewer than 4,000 total judges. And many of those judges have mostly administrative, as oppossed to courtroom, roles. That poses an challenging question for a country which works to take many cases to trial: how are there enough judges to hold all the trials guaranteed under the law?

The answer lies in a combination of (1) a broad network of judicial assistants, many of whom serve as shadow judges; and (2) resolving cases short of a full-blown trial. As the article explains:

How do they manage it? They get a lot of help; there are approximately 10,000 judicial clerks (shokikan) who play a key role in case management and documentation. Those with plenty of experience might well be called “magistrates” in that they effectively run some proceedings, such as bankruptcy and enforcement matters, where the need for formal judicial determinations of fact or law is limited. Some even end up as summary court judges.

In some family and civil proceedings, lawyers are also used as part-time “judges” (though they are not referred to by that term). Family and civil courts also rely on thousands of part-time conciliators from the neighboring community (including members of the local bar association) to help disputing parties arrive at mediated settlements. District courts also host labor tribunals that resolve labor cases using a mixed panel of a real judge and representatives of both sides of the employment relationship.

Still, most these proceedings are not “trials,” the right to which is supposedly guaranteed by Article 32 of the Constitution. In English, this bit of the charter appears to guarantee “the right of access to the courts,” but in Japanese it actually refers to “the right to a trial in a court.” That many cases are not actually trials is convenient because it means they can be resolved in closed proceedings (since constitutionally only “trials” must be conducted in open court) with fewer due-process protections.

Even when a case is or becomes a full-blown trial, it is not uncommon to hear lawyers complaining about judges cutting corners in civil cases to get them off their docket. This can often involve pressuring parties to settle. Some may be tempted to attribute this to cultural factors, but settlement is also just easier for judges — they don’t have to write a judgment or worry about being overturned on appeal.

The astute reader will identify many similarities to the current state of the American civil justice system, for better or for worse.

U.S. Supreme Court (finally!) adopts electronic filing

Almost 30 years after the PACER system was implemented for the federal district courts, and more than 15 years after district court dockets were placed on the web, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will adopt its own electronic filing system.  The system goes into effect this November.

The Court’s announcement states that “Once the system is in place, virtually all new filings will be accessible without cost to the public and legal community.” I read that to mean that reviewing and downloading docket materials will be free, which would be an improvement on the costly PACER system.  Let’s hope that is what is intended.

Attorneys file federal class action lawsuit over PACER fees

In April, attorneys for several watchdog groups filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the court’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system overcharged the public for access to court records starting in April 2010.

The lawsuit seeks “an unspecified amount of damages that ‘are found to exceed the amount authorized by law,’ as well as attorney fees.” Court documents and further details on the suit from the class action attorneys can be found here.

I was notified by email that I am a member of the plaintiff class, based on periodic PACER research I have conducted since 2010. And I have been critical of high PACER fees in the past, especially when PACER is used purely for academic research.  But this is a pretty silly lawsuit.  The class action attorneys will make a tidy sum from any settlement, and the actual affected members will likely get nothing of consequence.  I would much prefer to see the courts offer PACER as a free research service, or otherwise develop a sensible, tiered payment system.