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”

A renewed push for technological advances in state court systems

This week saw the formal announcement of two new efforts to modernize state court systems through technological improvements. The Pew Charitable Trusts announced an initiative, in partnership with the National Center for State Courts, American Bar Association, state court administrators, and private tech companies, to “modernize key aspects of the nation’s civil legal system and make it more accessible to the public.” Among the projects are developing more online tools for litigants and the public; using artificial intelligence to understand common language legal questions; and expanding online dispute resolution.

Separately, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) released a new report entitled Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers. Among the report’s recommendations are:

  • Ensure court information and services are accessible through smartphones and ensure up-to-date wayfinding.
  • Allow court users to present photos, videos, and other information from their smartphones in court.
  • Enable court users to appear by telephone or video conference.
  • Facilitate easier scheduling of hearings using common digital calendar platforms.
  • Allow online payment of fees and other costs.
  • Create opportunities for users to access forms and other case-related information remotely and simplify the completion and filing of those forms, including electronic filing, and eliminate notarization requirements.
  • Deliver automated court messaging about upcoming hearings or missed events and allow that messaging to help guide users through the process.

Substantively, both projects are directly responsive to an increasing number of self-represented litigants who desperately need help navigating the legal process. In the spirit of this blog, the projects also demonstrate how the courts can partner with organizations in their immediate environment to improve their outreach and service.

Courts are big organizations…

…and they require a lot more manpower than what the public might see at first glance. Courts need judges, clerks, and staff attorneys, to be sure — but they also need custodians, security officers, chefs, IT professionals, accountants, operations administrators, and every other type of job that allows large organizations to operate smoothly.

That point was recently driven home by this quirky job posting on the website for the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado:

Apply for the full-time position of Database Specialist or Programmer for the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado, and join us as a respected and valued cog of the massive federal  bureaucracy.

We work eight-hour days, rarely ever work after hours, and are not on call. Best of all, we have a benefits package that even the largest corporate conglomerate can’t (read won’t) offer, including a healthcare plan shared by members of the Supreme Court, all Federal Holidays off, amazing amounts of paid leave and separate sick leave, inclusion in one of the best rated, lowest cost retirement funds, and wait for it . . . a generous, guaranteed annuity (pension) backed by the Federal Government! You can work and have a life.

This job description is not exactly imbued with the deep solemnity that John Roberts tries to cultivate in all aspects  of the federal courts’ public persona. But perhaps that is the point. It’s a job posting for a database specialist, not a judge, and is (evidently) written to attract the best candidates for that specific position. Some database specialists may dream of working specifically in the court system. But I suspect that most don’t care too much about the organization’s day-to-day work, as long as the job is interesting, pays well, and has good benefits.

Bravo to the supervisors who allowed this posting to go up, and for giving us glimpse into the real people who make the courts run.

Cook County courts ordered to make e-filings immediately available to public

In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts, alleging that the county was posting electronically filed complaints days after receiving them, even though the complaints should have been immediately available to the press as public records.

On Monday, the federal court agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction which gives Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thirty days to develop a system under which the press can gain immediate access to newly filed cases.

I do not envy Dorothy Brown. Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected her request for a one-year extension of the deadline to align Cook County’s e-filing system with that of the rest of the state. This new decision only turns up the heat on Cook County to develop a functional e-filing system in very short order.

New high-tech courtroom for Brooklyn’s family court

Brooklyn’s family court will now benefit from a new high-tech courtroom, which will permit remote sharing of evidence, videoconferencing, and remote court interpreting.

This is a wonderful thing.  As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle story explains:

“This automation is overcoming barriers,” Dr. William Bell, whose organization Casey Family Programs helped pay for the ICT part in Brooklyn, said. “Barriers of language and barriers of location. Even though [someone] may be incarcerated, they can participate in a hearing about their child’s future. That is barrier that has far too long been nearly insurmountable. The fact is that we no longer have to bring people into this courtroom in chains in front of their children in order for them to have a say in their child’s life.”

Kudos to the court system for initiating these updates. (If only they could do something about the clunky, formal name for the courtroom: The Kings County Integrated Courtroom Technology Part. How about something a little snappier?)

Compared to other federal websites, uscourts.gov leaves a lot to be desired

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has released its second benchmarking review of U.S. government websites, and the main portal for the federal court system, uscourts.gov, performed very poorly in many of the benchmarking criteria.

The study considered four major performance categories: page-load speed, mobile friendliness, security, and accessibility. The uscourts.gov website scored a respectable (although hardly dazzling) 74/100 on desktop download speed and 68/100 on mobile download speed. But that was the only good news.

As to mobile friendliness, the site declined significantly from the time of the prior ITIF report, from a previous score of 99 to a score of 70 this year.  And website security for uscourts.gov was even worse. The court system was one of only a small handful of federal government bodies not to implement security measures–including the commonplace HTTPS protocol–to transmit sensitive information on its main site.

The composite score for uscourts.gov was a paltry 52.8 out of a perfect 100.  By contrast, other federal websites with legal dimensions, like fbi.gov, justice.gov, and uspto.gov, all achieved a composite score above 80.

If it seems that I criticize the federal courts for their technological blunders too frequently on this blog, it’s because I know the system can do better. Most of the fixes described above can be achieved without too much difficulty. But it seems that the federal courts as a whole have been slow to embrace even straightforward and commonplace technological advances, whether broadcasting courtroom proceedings, making documents easily available online, or securing their own website. The federal court system is the crown jewel of the greatest legal system on earth. Time to start acting like it.

The logistical challenges of local court administration

One of the challenges for litigators who practice across state boundaries is making sense of state court systems: not just the culture and norms of the area, but often the structure and administration of the courts themselves. Many states are downright byzantine, with a large number of specialized courts (sometimes with overlapping jurisdictions), and no unified (or only recently unified) court systems. Local courts, covering counties and municipalities, are often under the governance of their host city or county rather than a centralized judicial administrator.

This is a product of history as much as anything, but it leads to obvious inefficiencies. One example making the headlines this week comes from Clark County, Ohio, where the county council has voted against consolidating two clerk of court offices, in part because they use entirely different electronic records systems. The move was originally proposed as a way to save up to $400,000 a year for the cash-strapped city of Springfield, but the city was unable to fund a study to confirm that number. In the end, lawyers, judges, and others will have to continue navigating different court systems with different technological resources.