Senator Patrick Leahy is now asking why.
Created over 25 years ago, PACER is home to millions of court documents that were previously accessible only by requesting them from the relevant court. This often involved a trip to the court clerk’s office and cost considerable time and money. While PACER is not perfect, it provides a significant benefit to the public: at the stroke of a few keys, the public can now search for important briefs, court orders, written opinions, and other related filings, and receive the information instantaneously. Servicing over a million users in the last few years alone, PACER has not only dramatically improved access to information, it has helped increased transparency of the federal judiciary.
Wholesale removal of thousands of cases from PACER, particularly from four of our federal courts of appeals, will severely limit access to information not only for legal practitioners, but also for legal scholars, historians, journalists, and private litigants for whom PACER has become the go-to source for most court filings. It is additionally concerning that this announcement was made without any warning to the public, and without prior notification or consultation with Congress. Moreover, the announcement did not detail what steps, if any, are being taken to ensure that these important case files are properly preserved.
We live in a digital age. Requiring requesters to travel to the clerk’s office of individual courts to retrieve actual documents, or to submit an email request and wait several days for a response, is a dramatic step backwards from the centralized system that PACER provides. Furthermore, it is reported that requests made by email to individual courts could incur a $30 to $60 processing fees–a troubling increase in costs compared to the 10 cents per page that is currently charged to retrieve documents from PACER. PACER was designed to provide easy and affordable access to all members of the public, not just those who have the time and resources to submit and numerous requests to the courts.
He concludes by noting that he urges the Administrative Office of the courts to “take immediate steps to restore access to these documents.” Of course, it would be even better if they finally made PACER free and open to the public,