[Federal court records should belong to all of us. Instead, they belong to whoever can afford to pay for them.
Decades ago, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts created PACER, short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, which is an online database that attorneys, journalists and other folks use to look at those documents.
This database is the subject of a class-action lawsuit alleging PACER’s fees are excessive and go over the cost of what it takes to run the program. As Deepak Gupta, a lead attorney in that case, told CBS News: “The PACER system used by the lower federal courts is hopelessly outdated and cumbersome. And, to add insult to injury, the PACER system charges people fees to access court records that should be made freely available.”
PACER charges 10 cents per page, and even with a $3 cap per document, it adds up, especially considering how many records are filed in most court cases. Aside from that, PACER charges for searches and for viewing dockets, and both of those fees don’t have caps. So, you can be out a few dollars while looking at a few cases.
These fees have had an impact on local reporting, especially as many newspapers have cut back their courts coverage. The smaller media organizations where I’ve worked either considered canceling their PACER accounts to save money, never had an account in the first place or discouraged reporters from using PACER “except for emergencies,” or in other words, in situations where we’d already been beaten to the story.
How news organizations cover the courts has changed, but this hasn’t: What happens in courtrooms is integral to American justice.
So, I’d like to take this opportunity to let y’all know that I’m planning to branch into criminal justice reporting here at Big If True, and that means keeping up with federal courts. But I need a little help to make that happen.
I’ve launched a GoFundMe here, where I’m asking for what amounts to just $25 a month to cover Big If True’s PACER expenses for 2018. If you give a little, it would help a lot.
Thank you for reading and for your support.