Thursday, March 25, 2010

E-Government Oversight Committee Writes Appropriators About PACER Fees

The Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs has oversight over the implementation of the E-Government Act of 2002. Chairman Lieberman just sent a letter (PDF) to the Senate appropriators for the Judiciary explaining that the courts are using PACER fees to fund unrelated expenses, which is "against the requirement of the E-Government Act."

The Judiciary presented its budget request to the House appropriators last week. This letter suggests that the unrelated expenses should be funded via direct appropriations rather than out of PACER fees.

The committee had written an initial letter to the courts in February 2009, asking whether they were complying with the Act. The courts replied in a letter the following month. Evidently their answer was not satisfactory.

For context, you might find my working paper on PACER finances illuminating, as well as my recent thoughts on where the PACER fee debate is going.

United States Senate

March 25, 2010

The Honorable Richard Durbin
Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
Committee on Appropriations
184 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Susan Collins
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government
Committee on Appropriations
125 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510


Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)

I have concerns about how the Administrative Office of the Courts is interpreting a key provision of the E-Government Act relating to public access to Court records. Given the transparency efforts that have been made a priority across the Federal Government - as well as the recent call in the FCC's Broadband plan for increased online access to court records - I believe more attention needs to be paid to make these records free and easily accessible.

As you know, Court documents are electronically disseminated through the PACER system, which charges $.08-a-page for access. While charging for access was previously required, Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913 note) so that courts "may, only to the extent necessary" (instead of "shall") charge fees "for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment." The Committee report stated: "[t]he Committee intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move from a fee structure in which electronic docketing systems are supported primarily by user fees to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible... Pursuant to existing law, users of PACER are charged fees that are higher than the marginal cost of disseminating the information."

Since the passage of the E-Government Act, the vision of having information "freely available to the greatest extent possible" is far from being met, despite the technological innovations that should have led to reduced costs in the past eight years. In fact, cost for these documents has gone up, from $.07 to $.08-per-page. The Judiciary has attempted to mitigate the shortcomings of the current fee approach in a variety of ways, including limiting charges to $2.40-per-document and the recent announcement that any charges less than $10-per-quarter will be waived. While these efforts should be commended, I continue to have concerns that these steps will not dramatically increase public access as long as the pay-per-access model continues.

To move closer to the mandate of the E-Government Act, the Administrative Office of the Courts should reevaluate the current PACER pay-per-access model. Even to retrieve free materials such as opinions, PACER currently requires the individual to establish a PACER account. One goal of this review should be to create a payment system that is used only to recover the direct cost of distributing documents via PACER. That review should also examine how a payment system could allow for free bulk access to raw data that would allow increased analytical and oversight capability by third parties.

Additionally, in 2007, the Judiciary asked for and received written consent from the Appropriations Committees to "expand use of Electronic Public Access (EPA) receipts to support courtroom technology allotments for installation, cyclical replacement of equipment, and infrastructure maintenance." As a result, funds collected by the $.08-per-page charge have been used for initiatives that are unrelated to providing public access via PACER and against the requirement of the E-Government Act. The Appropriations Committee should review the Judiciary Information Technology Fund Report provided each year to ensure the funds generated from PACER are only going to pay for the direct costs of disseminating documents via PACER, and not for additional items which I believe should be funded through direct appropriations.


Joseph I. Lieberman

1 comment:

Shubham Mukherjee said...

This letter was great to read, and I'm glad to see you're staying on this topic.
- Shubham