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While we often concentrate on the Executive and Legislative branches when we talk about government transparency, the federal court system lags behind them both. The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system – the only online source for “public” court documents – is hardly a modern system for openness. Sure, it was when it launched several years ago, but it has fallen far behind the times. In order to access court records, users must use a confusing and outdated system to pay eight cents per page for PDFs of court documents.

A new project from Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy aims to “turn PACER around” with a Firefox extension called RECAP. This extension is crowd-sourcing the task of making documents available, letting users know when a document can be had for free at the RECAP archive and letting users donate documents they purchase to the free collection.

As I noted in February, these opinions and documents often form the basis for our understanding of legislation and law. They are currently locked behind a pay wall. RECAP is working with Public.Resource.Org and Justia to build on their existing free court documents, consolidating them with user submissions at the Internet Archive. This is exactly the kind of project that we need in order to show that the courts shouldn’t rely on high user fees to make information public – in fact, the information can and should be shared easily.

Transparency advocates are not the only people pushing PACER to modernize it’s system; Senator Lieberman continues to question the fees levied on users. He’s right- the courts are not making documents “freely available to the greatest extent possible” as mandated in 2002 as part of the E-Government Act. When the government won’t free information, third parties stepping in to compile and share information is the next best thing.

RECAP will be presenting on their new extension as well as the policy context of their work at the O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Expo next month, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.