Bill to tear down federal courts’ paywall gains momentum in Congress

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Two men in suits and masks in front of the American flag.
Zoom in / Judicial Chair Jerry Nadler (DN.Y.) and Classification Member Jim Jordan (R) disagree on many cases, but both support the Open Courts Act.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Open Courts Act – legislation to reform the federal court system for access to public documents. The proposal would ensure free public access to court documents, ending the current practice of charging 10 cents per page on many documents – in addition to search results.

The bill has yet to be passed by the entire House and Senate and signed by the president. With Election Day only close to seven weeks, it is unlikely that the law will become law during this congressional session.

However, the vote is important because it indicates broad congressional support for the demolition of the PACER firewall. The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins (R-J.), Who we are Covered in 2018And her Georgian colleague, Democrat Hank Johnson.

Before the House Judiciary Committee vote on Tuesday, the bill had strong support from Chairman Jerrold Nadler (DN.Y.).

“It is unjustified that the public will pay unreasonably high fees, and exorbitant fees, to find out what happens in their courts,” Nadler said.

This was followed by an equally enthusiastic endorsement from Representative Jim Jordan (R), the highest-ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee and an ally of President Trump.

“Proponents of judicial transparency have long advocated free public access to court records,” Jordan noted. “I agree that court records and information should be more easily accessible. The logical reforms contained in the bill are long overdue.”

In short, this is a rare reform proposal with strong support across the political spectrum. In Congress today, even widely held ideas don’t always turn into laws quickly. But this one has a good chance of being passed in the next Congress if it doesn’t happen at this one.

Pacer Update

The bill goes beyond just removing the 10-cent fee per page. It directs courts to make a number of changes that have long been pushed by advocates of judicial transparency.

Currently, the nearly 200 trial, bankruptcy and appeals courts in the United States each run their own counterparts of PACER in addition to the CM / ECF system that litigants use to present documents to the courts. Not only does this increase the cost and complexity of operating the system, but it also means that the courts do not provide a nationwide search function. If you don’t know which court is looking into a particular case, there is no easy way to find its agenda or view the documents associated with the case.

Independent projects like summary (Which I helped create a decade ago) tried to bridge this gap with their search engines. But they only have some documents in the PACER system. PACER’s official nationwide search engine will be more comprehensive and therefore more useful.

The Open Courts Act instructs courts to create a “one-stop system for all court records,” including a search function.

This new system will support permalinks so that other websites can link directly to individual documents. Courts will also be required to publish the information in a “non-proprietary, full-text searchable, platform-independent, computer-readable format”, allowing third parties to easily use the data for academic research, journalism, and other purposes. Courts will be given two to three years to make these changes in cooperation with the General Services Administration, a federal agency that has experience with large-scale IT projects.

Funded with higher fees elsewhere

In the past, one of the biggest sticking points in getting rid of PACER’s firewall was finding replacement funds. It’s a tough problem because Congress has shown little desire to increase spending even on widely popular software.

The Open Courts Act deals with this by increasing other fees imposed by the courts. In the short term, the legislation will actually increase PACER’s fees for heavier users – those who earn more than $ 25,000 in quarterly fees. That fee would hit data brokers who collect data from court records for use for background checks, legal databases, and other commercial services. The higher fees on these commercial providers will help the courts finance development work to fund the new PACER bill.

In the long run, revenue will be generated through higher fees for people filing lawsuits. To avoid being too onerous, the new fees will exempt plaintiffs who represent themselves and others who can prove the fees create financial hardship. The bill would also impose fees on creditors in bankruptcy proceedings.

If Congress takes no action, PACER’s fee of 10 cents per page could be lowered in the next two years thanks to a class action lawsuit alleging that courts charge more fees than current law allows. Prosecutors A. The key to early judgment From the appeals court last month. But even if the plaintiffs finally win, the case will only lower PACER’s fees – and not eliminate it entirely. Transparency argues that any unpaid blocking system – even if it is much cheaper – is a significant barrier to public access.

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