House Passes PACER Bill As Budget Office Says It Will Cost Less Than $1 Million A Year To Provide Free Access To Court Documents

from the court-system-seems-to-have-embraced-Hollywood-accounting dept

We're one step closer to free access to federal court documents. The House has passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, moving it on to the Senate, which will decide whether the bill lands on the president's desk.

Yes, this sort of thing has happened before. And previous efforts have always died on their way to the Oval Office. But this one might be different. A growing collection of case law says the US Courts system has been overcharging users and illegally spending funds meant to improve the PACER system and, yes, lower the cost for users.

This latest effort has a bit more momentum than its predecessors. And that seems to worrying the US Courts, which has fought back with dubious assertions and even more dubious budget estimates. The court system claims it will cost at least $2 billion over the next several years to overhaul PACER and provide free access to documents. Experts say it will cost far less.

A group of former government technologists and IT experts dispute that figure. In a letter sent last week to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the group estimated the cost of a new system would be $10 million to $20 million over 36 months to build the system and between $3 million and $5 million annually to maintain and develop.

Even more damning is the Congressional Budget Office's estimate. According to its report, fixing the system and providing free access to most users would cost less than $1 million a year.

On net, CBO estimates that enacting H.R 8235 would increase the deficit by $9 million over the 2021-2030 period.

The report says overhauling the system will cost around $46 million. But that will be offset by fees the court system will be able to collect from "high-volume, for-profit users," which the CBO estimates to be about $47 million over the same period. After subtracting some expected revenue declines and indirect tax effects, the court system should net about $37 million over the next decade.

That should end the debate over cost but it probably won't. For whatever reason, the court system continues to insist giving citizens free access to court documents would bankrupt the system. If it can find allies receptive to its bad math in the Senate, it could end this bill's run.

But no one but the court system agrees with the court system's math. It's not just potential beneficiaries of free access providing much lower cost estimates. The government itself disagrees with this branch's budgetary suppositions. Hopefully, the CBO and the tireless work of transparency advocates will finally push free PACER past the Senate and onto the president's desk.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: access to courts, congress, courts, judiciary, open courts act, pacer, transparency


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2020 @ 11:02am

    Getting it past the Senate sounds like it will be easy. Getting it past 'Moscow Mitch" in order to get it before the Senate might be a lot harder.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 11:31am

    McConnell remains...

    Senator and Majority Speaker McConnell remains the gate guardian that has shut down the democratic part of US federal democracy.

    Again, we need to not just remove him, but make sure no-one has the power to obstruct the way he has.

    It's really time to be ruthless and relentless about it. And it's time to act before it becomes time to be violent, cruel and merciless about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 11:47am

      Re: McConnell remains...

      Again, we need to not just remove him, but make sure no-one has the power to obstruct the way he has.

      How?

      The entire lesson McConnell has taught us is that restrictions on the Senate are entirely based on mutual consent, and the second a bare majority decides it doesn't want to abide by them, they're gone.

      The only way you can impose limitations on Congress that can't be overturned by Congress is to amend the Constitution. Good fucking luck. Exactly one constitutional amendment has passed during my lifetime, and that one took more than 200 years.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 12:21pm

        Politics by other means

        Again, we need to not just remove him, but make sure no-one has the power to obstruct the way he has.

        How?

        Again, artillery is looking really attractive. It would not be the first time a nation needed to siege a civic hall to motivate them. And better than than a bums' rush by a famished mob to just literally tear the senators apart, pell-mell.

        At the point you say it cannot be done to something that needs to be done, it becomes time to open the next box of liberty.

        ...or we can just continue to live with a non-functional federal government while people die from covid / go homeless / starve. All these are unrest multipliers so the nights may get noisy.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2020 @ 1:29pm

          Re: Politics by other means

          You seem balanced and definitely not worth putting on a watchlist for possible domestic terrorism

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 2:11pm

            Wait, I'm NOT on a watchlist?

            If not a candidate for domestic terrorism (or the FBI's special gaslight-your-way-to-a-sting program, like the Bowling Green Massacre) I'm sure I deserve a stern talking-to by law enforcement for incitement.

            I've been living by the bear rule, which is to say some of my screed may raise alarm to those monitoring the US surveillance complex, but not as much alarm as countless other kooks many of whom have joined white nationalist groups or are actually prepping for civil war.

            Those guys have actually burned down police precincts, so I'm sure they are regarded as a greater threat than this crazy old man trying to make sense of world gone mad. I resent when one US Senator has more power than the rest of Congress, combined. Compared to those who eagerly wage war on large portions of the US population, my grievances are precise and measured. Perhaps the FBI is waiting for me to start practicing long-range shooting with a high-powered rifle. I don't own any firearms.

            Yes, I get angry sometimes. Yes, I have my violent fantasies. I also know that I'm not the competent soldier or planner they're looking for. I try to take a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to my calls to arms: if we don't deal with problems now, even if it takes a small amount of violence, then we can expect a much greater, more calamitous, less controlled violence in our future. The controlled-burn approach to forest management.

            On the other hand, according to BLM, peaceful protest movements have a greater success rate than violent ones. The question is if they take more of a resource than we have: cooperative participants or time.

            We are very much out of time to let a minority faction essentially shut down the federal legislature. I don't expect anyone to do anything that will be effective, but someone needs to do something.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Thad (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 1:47pm

          Re: Politics by other means

          The idea that we can restore respect for civic governance through violent coercion puts me in mind of the old joke about how fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 2:22pm

            Fighting for peace

            Civic systems deteriorate toward corruption and toward the consolidation of power. As it was in France 1789, civil unrest was the only threat taken seriously.

            We can go that way, but we're in a fascist police state. We have detention centers in which abuses of detainees are typical. We have an epidemic, a homelessness crisis and a hunger crisis. And we have law enforcement murdering people who are unarmed and not resisting.

            Oh and for as many people as we have on board with a non-autocratic leader we have a similar scary number who want the guy who wants to purge all the brown people and overthrow the election through litigation and friends undermining the establishment for his own gain.

            Oh and we're expecting a blue ocean event in the 2030s and a global climate toasty warm for dinosaurs by 2100.

            If you think we can turn this all around without a civil uprising, I'm eager to hear your plan. My enthusiasm is only curbed by skepticism and decades of disappointment.

            Please, brighten my day.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Dec 2020 @ 7:46am

            Re: Re: Politics by other means

            "The idea that we can restore respect for civic governance through violent coercion puts me in mind of the old joke about how fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity."

            True enough. Peace tends to follow and adhere to concepts such as liberty and prosperity. Both of which we know through ample historical precedence, are usually only found by watering the ground liberally with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

            The old joke is answering the wrong question though, because "peace" is not an opposite of government corruption. The Roman empire in it's last days was eminently peaceful. In repose, as it were. Barely opened its eyes when the vandals walked in and sacked it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 7:35pm

          [Trump Cultists Liked That]

          Based upon current events there are likely plenty of people out there just waiting for an excuse to go from 'just' sending death threats to carrying them out in response to what they are told by the Dear Leader and his cult is a 'threat to democracy' in the form of him not being in office come next year, I'm sure they'd be all for your idea of breaking open the next 'box of liberty' and once that box is opened you're probably not going to like who else decides to make use of it and how many of them there are, nor have any real grounds to object when they make use of it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 9:23pm

            No grounds to object

            They're going to kill me anyway. When the other people have the laws and the guns, there's not much I can do.

            The difference is whether I get a bullet to the head, or get to starve to death under a gulag regimen of undernourishment and forced labor and a cornucopia of contagious diseases.

            But McConnell, and any future McConnell clones will only assure Biden is an unsatisfactory president so they can install the next Trump.

            Can anything be done about that which doesn't involve open warfare?

            Will anything be done about it that doesn't involve open warfare?

            Biden seems to be content with his back to normal campaign that won't make the major reforms to election and legislative law so that changes can be made. He's our status-quo man, which will lead us right to another trump, and an untermenschen classification for Uriel, (but after they come for Uriel's friends and before they come for the rest of the TechDirt forum)

            I repeat what I said: if you have any better ideas and they're plausible and will allow us time to adequately address warming / dying global ecology, my enthusiasm is boundless.

            But at the point we're doomed if we refuse to take direct action it might be time to put direct action on the table again.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              That One Guy (profile), 12 Dec 2020 @ 11:48am

              Re: No grounds to object

              I may not have any immediate answers other than 'work from the bottom up' as far as electing sane people in lower positions and then working upwards from there but I do know that opening that particular box would be playing right into the Trump cult's hands as if you think it's bad now it would be so very much worse when they are handed justification to follow through on the death threats they've been sending, lock the country down under martial law and/or pass laws that would make the current ones look downright generous under the guise of 'dealing with ongoing civil unrest'.

              Instigating a second american civil war, one that would make the first one look like a minor bar scuffle in comparison should be seen as the absolute last option on the table, and it's bad enough that we've already got one person/party trying to start one there's no need for more.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Uriel-238 (profile), 12 Dec 2020 @ 1:25pm

                Drawing a line from here to functional federal government

                This is one of those fields in which we definitely need to nerd harder. Granted, it's political nerdery rather than technological nerdery, but we've watched the old tricks not working for the last century.

                Granted, some pretty sharp minds are working on it, though we're going to need a lot of luck and pluck to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis (in this case between civil war and that far right dictatorship all the Trump-voters seem to want).

                And really, we may not have a choice if Trump gets his putsh (enabled by most of the GOP officials in the federal government) and he motivates his base to start shooting. In that case it'll be a disappointment if we don't get to revise the Constitution of the United States so that it leans more towards actual democracy.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Dec 2020 @ 7:59am

                Re: Re: No grounds to object

                "but I do know that opening that particular box would be playing right into the Trump cult's hands"

                If I may be so bold as to interject with the following few details;

                Some 73 million americans are already learning that their future depends on liberals getting fucked good'an'ard. The opposite side is already telling everyone their only shot at "freedom" is to kill all the bleeding-heart liberals who keep yapping about equality. One way or another that box will be opened.

                Because it is not, in the end, about the government. It's about 1 in 3 americans currently being at utterly irreconcilable odds with the other 2/3.

                That sore has festered openly since the 50's or even earlier. The only way out is for the 2/3 to suppress that 1/3 until the next generation grows up knowing that bigotry, racism and mistrusting education isn't the way. And that treatment is going to be painful, expensive, inconvenient, and demand a high degree of persistence.
                But the alternative is that with no firm action taken the only alternative is amputation - by either letting a few states secede along with the morons currently in the trump cult - or civil war.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Uriel-238 (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 10:30pm

            Mutually Assured Destruction

            I also will respect a call to stand down even if it means letting the GOP seize control of the federal government and turn the US into (essentially) a one-party state. But I want to know that this is what we're doing if it is.

            If the plan to stop the GOP from taking over is limited by what the system allows, and letting the US democracy fail before we open hostilities, I want to know that's the plan: death before violence.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Dec 2020 @ 7:33am

      Re: McConnell remains...

      "Senator and Majority Speaker McConnell remains the gate guardian that has shut down the democratic part of US federal democracy."

      Someone please remind me again. How on earth has it become so that one person in the senate has the ability to prevent a bill from even being tabled in the senate?

      I mean, every time I hear or read about McConnel's ability to block legislative process I'm just seeing a tribune of the plebs from ancient roman times imposing his veto.
      Although in a less advanced way - if a tribune of the plebs went against the majority opinion of the plebs that veto would be removed by way of angry mob.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 12:23pm

    Voice Vote

    I wanted to see if my own representative voted for the bill, but I found out that there was no roll call taken, as it was passed with a voice vote.

    I apologize in advance if this is irrelevant, but unfortunately, we'll never know for sure who voted for it and who didn't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 11 Dec 2020 @ 3:31pm

    The court system claims it will cost at least $2 billion over the next several years to overhaul PACER and replace the income lost from PACER to fund other projects

    FTFY

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Bruce C., 11 Dec 2020 @ 7:48pm

    I'm with the courts on this one...

    I can't think of a single government computer contract that's ever come in under $1 billion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Bruce C., 11 Dec 2020 @ 7:56pm

      Re: I'm with the courts on this one...

      To clarify: I think the courts have a better idea of how much it will cost, not that it justifies their gouging of the public for access to public records.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 12 Dec 2020 @ 3:53am

        Re: Re: I'm with the courts on this one...

        They also know how much want to expand unrelated budgets, which are already being padded by the charges..

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
.

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.