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Senator Wants to Scratch a Seven Year Itch

Senator Lieberman has written a letter to the Judicial Conference asking why the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) online system is still charging a “per page” fee, when the goal of putting these records online in the first place was to make them “freely available to the greatest extent possible.” That was seven years ago.

PACER doesn’t seem to have made any progress since then. Apparently the public (still) agrees–PACER is one of the top vote getters at our Show Us the Data project. In addition, the barrier to accessing court records has inspired citizens to try to free the information in PACER.

PACER was instructed to charge access fees “only to the extent necessary,” in contrast to then-existing law allowing the Judicial Conference to prescribe fees that it deemed “reasonable”; and to protect privacy of persons named in court documents. More in-depth access to court records is only available through pricey third parties.

According to Stephen Schultze and Shubham Mukherjee PACER fees amount to almost double the cost of actually running the system, if not more. Governments should be in the business of sharing information in the interest of the people, not making money.

Access to these court documents may not seem like one of the most pressing gaps when it comes to online availability of government information, but these opinions and document often form the basis for our understanding of legislation and law. Congress’ original thinking on PACER was “greater access to judicial information enhances opportunities for the public to become educated about their legal system and to research case-law, and it improves access to the court system.” Currently, limitations of PACER and the fees it charges for access are a barrier to obtaining these records.

We’re glad to see that Senator Lieberman is following up on the requirements from the E-Government Act of 2002, and we hope to see free, publicly accessible court records online soon.