PACER, Or Your First Amendment Right To Go Fuck Yourself For $0.10/Page

from the clunky,-inadequate-lie dept

Anyone who's used the US Court system's PACER system has complained about it. Some of those complaints have formed the basis of lawsuits. The multitude of complaints has moved legislators to make periodic runs at eliminating PACER's paywall. So far, PACER -- which looks and feels like it's still 2001 -- has managed to outlast these efforts. The only change over the last nineteen years has been an increase in access fees.

Many have complained, but few have complained as eloquently as Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University's Program on Extremism. His op-ed for Politico is definitely worth reading. It highlights everything wrong with the PACER system, including its amazing profitability.

The U.S. federal court system rakes in about $145 million annually to grant access to records that, by all rights, belong to the public. For such an exorbitant price—it can cost hundreds of dollars a year to keep up with an ongoing criminal case—you might think the courts would at least make it easy to access basic documents. But you’d be wrong. The millions of dollars the courts have reaped in user fees have produced a website unworthy of the least talented of Silicon Valley garage programmers; 18 years since its online birth, PACER remains a byzantine and antiquated online repository of legal information.

This money is supposed to be used to improve PACER and fund other US Courts' efforts. A visit to PACER makes it clear none of that money is being routed towards making PACER less awful. At least one federal court has ruled the way the US Courts spend this money is illegal. But that determination hasn't stopped the court system from collecting fees and spending them on things like new TV screens in courthouses.

While it is a definite improvement over traveling to the pertinent court and using a kiosk to access electronic documents -- the way it was done from 1988-2001 -- the entire system is user-unfriendly and stupid expensive. The $0.10/page fee applies not only to documents, but to search results. Given the lack of standardization of case titles, searches are both expensive and frustrating. The fees apply whether or not the search turns up anything users are searching for.

And the per page fees for PDFs is simply ridiculous. These pages aren't being run off a Xerox by a court clerk. They're being served up from an infinite supply of 1s and 0s. Given their digital state, how does it possibly make sense to charge more for longer documents? The answer doesn't matter because it's the only game in town.

Adding to the problem is the court system's housecleaning efforts and the way it reacts to publication of public documents. In 2014, multiple appeals courts deleted "old" cases from their databases, memory-holing thousands of documents and decisions -- some only a couple of years old at that point. But what's more worrying is the way courts have responded to journalists publishing documents.

In January, I found a search warrant related to a wide-ranging investigation into public corruption in the Los Angeles City Council. When I made my discovery public, the Central District of California essentially locked down all search warrants filed on PACER. Most, if not all, search warrants recently filed in the district are no longer accessible online.

Presumably the DOJ and other law enforcement agencies did some loud complaining about the public court systems' publicly-accessible documents ending up in the hands of the public, resulting in a presumption of secrecy when it comes to affidavits and warrants.

More ends up hidden from public view -- not due to malice, but due to bureaucratic indifference. Hughes points out he has come across several terrorism prosecutions by the DOJ that have never been publicly announced by the Justice Department. The average member of the American public is not going to spend hundreds of dollars a month trying to track down documents from terrorism cases, so it's up the DOJ to provide timely notice of its anti-terrorism efforts. The DOJ is failing to do so and we only know this because dedicated private parties are willing to subject themselves to PACER's UI and inadequate search system to publicize the stuff the government can't be bothered to announce.

This all adds up to the worst system money can buy. It's broken. It's a joke. And it's the only access we the people have to documents the government has declared we have a First Amendment right to access. It's ugly, it's counterintuitive, and it somehow manages to personify the begrudging spirit of the most jaded bureaucrat, despite it being entirely composed of barely-functional code.

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Filed Under: access, access to law, pacer, transparency, us courts


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Mar 2019 @ 5:41am

    Write your congressmen (most are Lawyers), tell them this sucks.


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