Theoretically, certain documents are supposed to be freely accessible to the public, including documents contained in the dockets of the federal courts. Congress has permitted the imposition of fees for electronic access to this otherwise freely available documents, imposing a per page fee that, while not particularly excessive, can certainly add up. That access is accomplished through PACER – Public Access to Court Electronic Records.
The fees, their use, and any “profit” realized via the system, have been the subject of public debate and litigation. Suits include class actions and are premised on overcharges, proper application of collected fees and failure to abide by certain laws, such as the E-Government Act of 2002. While private companies, such as Thompson Reuters and LexisNexis offer paid access with extra bells and whistles, the debate fundamentally centers on what constitutes public “access” to public documents in this day and age.
Recently, in early September, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) has introduced a bill to increase transparency and access to these federal court documents. H.R. 6714, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, seeks to open up PACER to users for free. It requires documents to be added within five days after filed with the court, in a text-searchable and machine-readable format. It also mandates updates to the woefully cludgy system and interface, including improvements to the search function. The bill also seeks to consolidate the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system. While this system was intended to improve efficiency within the judicial system, it is broken into different systems in different courts, which further obstructs locating records and documents. The Act would unify these disconnected systems under the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Finally, the Act will permit fees to be charged to States that wish to opt into the CS/ECF system.
Who knows if this Bill will pass and the moneymaker that is PACER forever opened up to the masses through free access. It will be interesting to see how this Bill fares and, if it does pass, what it ultimately will look like. You can take a look at the current version of the bill text here.