Greg Beato from the June 2012 issue
Let the record show that the people who created
Public Access to Court Electronic Records, a.k.a. PACER, think
their database of judicial records is awesome. “PACER has been one
of the great success stories of the federal Judiciary,” exclaims
bankruptcy judge J. Richard Leonard in the August 2010 edition of
The Third Branch, a monthly newsletter published by the
Administrative Office (A.O.) of the U.S. Courts. “The very good
news, ha, ha, is that our users are happy,” chortles Michel
Ishakian, chief of the A.O.’s Public Access and Records Management
Division in a video news release that appears on the database’s
Not everyone, however, is so pleased with PACER, which is an
Internet-based service that allows attorneys, litigants, and other
interested parties to access docket sheets, judicial opinions, and
other documents related to federal cases. “Its user interface
sucks,” says Carl Malamud, an open government gadfly and founder of
public.resource.org. “Browsers aren’t supported properly. There’s
no API. There’s no batch access.”
But perhaps what galls Malamud and other PACER critics most is
the system’s access fees. For the last several years, Malamud and
various others, including Steve Schultze, associate director of
Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy,
have been insisting that the government is spending way too much to
develop and maintain PACER given its limited functionality, while
charging users way too much to access it. On April 1, as if on cue,
the A.O. raised PACER prices by 25 percent—from 8 cents to 10 cents
per page. At that rate, a weekday copy of The New York
Times would go for $7 or $8, and Walter Isaacson’s biography
of Steve Jobs would cost $65.60.
PACER debuted in 1988 as a forward-thinking dial-up system
allowing users equipped with a modem and a copy of PC Anywhere to
access case materials from a handful of federal courts. Three years
later, Congress decided the service should be self-supporting and
authorized the federal judiciary to charge users a “reasonable” fee
for accessing it. Perhaps taking inspiration from the popular 976
phone sex lines of that era, the A.O. initiated a fee of $1 per
minute. The average reader could get through a 10,000-word judicial
opinion for $40 or so.
Even at such seemingly exorbitant rates, PACER was a
revolutionary leap forward. Prior to the service, federal courts
kept exactly one paper copy of each document associated with any
given case in their files. To view a document, you had to go to the
courthouse itself (or send a courier on your behalf). In the dank
marble bowels of some bureaucratic sanctum, you had to request the
document from a slow-moving clerk, and if someone else happened to
be looking at it when you made your request, you had to wait. Once
you had it in your hands, you could take notes or ask the clerk to
photocopy pages for you—at 50 cents per page. It was not the sort
of experience that conjured up terms like user-friendly or
But if PACER seemed mind-blowing in the early 1990s, it now
seems as archaic as a barrister’s wig. You can initiate searches
only by using case numbers or party names. There is no way to have
the system alert you when new materials are added to the case
you’re following. And most of all, there are those fees.
“What’s the alternative to PACER charging users?” counters A.O.
spokesman Richard Carelli. “If it’s not users, it’s taxpayers.”
Carelli points out that many PACER users do access the system for
free: Judicial opinions cost nothing to download, and any user who
racks up less than $15 per quarter for other materials isn’t
charged. In fiscal year 2011, when the quarterly usage ceiling was
$10, more than 70 percent of the approximately 450,000 accounts
that used PACER during that period were not billed.
“Less than 1 percent of all accounts generate more than 65
percent of revenue,” says Carelli. The largest customer is the
Department of Justice (which, of course, means taxpayers already
are funding PACER, just indirectly). Other high-volume users
include commercial database providers such as Lexis-Nexis and
Westlaw, which repackage PACER material in more useful and
user-friendly ways and then resell it at premium prices to the
legal industry and back to the federal government itself. According
to Carelli, 95 percent of PACER’s users incur less than $500 a year
in charges. “It’s not like Grandma and Grandpa are spending their
mortgage money on PACER,” he says.
Even without old folks help, PACER is a cash cow. In 1995 the
service took in approximately $5 million in revenue. By 2006 its
annual haul had grown to $50 million, and in 2011, Carelli tells
me, the federal judiciary generated $114 million in electronic
public access fees, the great majority of which came from
The A.O. uses these fees not just to maintain and develop PACER
but also to underwrite other programs that it says help improve
public access to the courts, such as automating bankruptcy filing
notices and purchasing flat-screen video monitors for courtroom
use. According to Carelli, the A.O. is raising PACER fees to cover
the development costs of the next generation of Case
Management/Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF), the management system
that allows attorneys and other parties to initiate federal court
cases electronically instead of filing paper versions of the
documents at the courthouse. (In turn, the documents that are
entered via CM/ECF end up populating the database that powers
PACER. It’s these documents that are returned when users submit
Should ordinary citizens be paying higher fees to help
underwrite improvements to a system that makes it cheaper and
easier for attorneys to file their cases, even if they’re only
spending a few bucks a year? Should Lexis-Nexis? In fact, PACER’s
high access fees may be limiting its potential to generate revenue.
When I suggest that unlimited free access might lead to so much
usage that PACER could sustain itself on bail-bond ads alone,
Carelli breaks out in laughter. “I’ve been here 12 years,” he
exclaims, “and I have never heard anyone mention the possibility of
the federal judiciary in any way being linked with
Twelve years ago, scores of established information providers
were so busy trying to figure out how they could charge users for
Web content that they missed out on a chance to be Google. Even in
2012, the federal judiciary continues to think like a legacy media
company. Its apparent goal is to help traditional customers use its
information for the same purposes they’ve always used it for,
albeit in a more efficient fashion.
Malamud and Schultze, meanwhile, have grander aspirations.
Making sure that large numbers of people have access to more than
one or two cases per quarter is a start. But the truly
game-changing aspect of free access involves giving developers
access to the entire PACER database and letting them develop new
ways to filter, analyze, and distribute this valuable information.
Some of these developers would be motivated by profit, others by
altruism. But in the end, the culture at large would benefit as the
information contained in the relatively unexploited PACER case
materials became truly accessible for the first time.
“From a citizen perspective, we could build a variety of tools
that would make it far easier to understand and consolidate what’s
going on in the courts and track cases that deal with issues that
are particularly relevant to you,” says Schultze. Ultimately, he
believes, these tools would lead to a “democratization” of judicial
proceedings, giving us all a much better understanding of how the
cases and judicial decisions that end up having so much impact on
our lives develop and play out.
There is certainly no reason why a more open PACER would have to
sacrifice its self-sustaining status. If there is anything the last
two decades have taught us, it’s that a $100 million surefire
revenue stream is often the greatest impediment to making $1
Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San
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How can you talk about opening pacer without mentioning the
Firefox plugin Recap?
RECAP is an extension (or “add on”) for the Firefox web
browser that improves the PACER experience while helping PACER
users build a free and open repository of public court records.
RECAP users automatically donate the documents they purchase from
PACER into a public repository hosted by the Internet Archive. And
RECAP saves users money by alerting them when a document they are
searching for is already available from this repository. RECAP also
makes other enhancements to the PACER experience, including more
user-friendly file names.
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I'm gonna half to reinstall firefox for using that. Of course
I'm not the one paying for the documents.
Federal court? Archaic? Why I say, good man, the monocle just
leapt off of my face!
Does it need cleaning? I have some tears of orphaned minorities
perfect for polishing in a jar right next to my rhino horn chalice
Is it fish oil from endangered species of fish?
Pacer only gives you what was filed by the court, not
depositions. It cost time and money to review a municipal lawsuit,
etc. The ruling class does not want to be scrutinized.
Depositions have never been part of the court record - unless
they are submitted as an exhibit.
This is terrible! A government system that makes more money than
it costs to run!
We must end all charges now!
And defund any progress on it, because it is already
There's nothing wrong with a government system that makes money.
If the government's electronic filing system (which will have fees)
makes money, you wouldn't see an article about it here. The problem
is that PACER is an information access tool. Information
should be open and available to everyone. This is why public
libraries and their free internet access are so important. Only
with an educated populace can true capitalism and libertarianism
work. With PACER, you have added barriers to information access
that inherently disenfranchise at least a portion of the
So, of the entire world's set of "non-free" information (and you
must admit there's a ton of it) the system you want to insist be
opened first is this one?
Not the world's science journals, so I could read more than an
Or raw data from polls?
Do you consider it a point of honor to be on the wrong side of
There are some topics in which I am complete agreement with
Reason on. There was a post recently about California legislators
trying to hide all their property dealings, for example. And their
exposes of police officers getting away with murder.
And, no, I'm on the right side of every topic,
trying to correct you, the sorry lot of you.
I've made a petition to the whitehouse about updating the PACER
system. I know, I know, petitions don't usually do anything, but
it's about the only thing us peasants can do. And at least it will
raise the visibility of this topic.
you can sign it here:
I'm slightly concerned about the privacy issues raised with
PACER and how the information could be easily misused. I am not
thrilled at the idea of criminal defendants, who have been
convicted of no crime, having their dirty laundry exposed to all
because they got a DUI on federal property.
I could go to the courthouse right now and access any criminal
file I wanted, unless it has been sealed.
I think that at this point, no document or record should be
considered publicly available unless it is available for free
Silly...they've been on public display in the cellar at the
bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with
a sign on the door saying "Beware of The Leopard."
my neighbor's aunt makes $62 hourly on the internet. She has
been fired from work for 6 months but last month her pay was $1955
just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this
I think it is time the system got updated with more security and
a better user interface.
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