Federal judiciary funds IT war chest 8 cents at a time

Courthouse search engine generates $94M in revenue by charging for downloads of public records; critic cries foul

Editor's note: this article was corrected July 8 to clarify the sponsorship of Law.gov

The federal court system may be operating its electronic public records program as a cash cow, charging the public a lot more than what it costs to operate the program, according to an advocate of open government.

Although the federal judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) program charges 8 cents a page for downloads and is expected to generate $94 million in new revenues this year, that amount far exceeds the cost to operate PACER, according to Stephen Schultze, associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.

According to the judiciary’s Fiscal 2010 Financial Plan, “public access services and applications,” which is PACER, is budgeted at $21.9 million for the year. Additional electronic public access-related programs include Case Management/Electronic Case File System, $27 million; telecommunications, $25 million; courtroom technology, $25 million; and electronic bankruptcy notifications, $10 million.


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The judiciary acknowledges that revenue generated from PACER pays for those additional electronic public access-related programs at the courts.

“That money has been something of a war chest for future projects such as Case Management/Electronic Case File System [CM/ECF] Next Gen and other public access enhancements,” said Karen Redmond, public information officer for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “By statute, all revenue must be pumped back into the judiciary's CM/ECF system and other technological advances.”

However, Schultze contends that allowing the PACER revenues to pay for items not directly related to PACER costs, such as courtroom technology and case management upgrades, appears to be a violation of the court systems’ authorization from Congress under the E-Government Act of 2002. In that law, Congress allowed the courts to charge "only to the extent necessary" for electronic public access.

Schultze said the current fee system is unfair to the members of the public who want to access court records. If they were charged strictly at cost, the expense of accessing the records would be much lower, he said. Under the current system, it is not uncommon for a search of legal records to cost in the hundreds of dollars, he said.

“The judiciary is using PACER to cross-subsidize other technology projects at the courts,” Schultze said in an inrerview. “Most fundamentally, this is an open government issue.”

The judiciary defends its use of PACER funding for case management system upgrades and other related public access purposes. It considers all the electronic public access programs to be closely related and in a common purview.

“Many people use PACER and electronic public access interchangeably,” Redmond said. “It costs a lot of money to maintain, modernize, and constantly secure the PACER system.”

Meanwhile, Schultze’s campaign to publicize the alleged inequity is gaining some traction. It recently was noted in a White House Office of Science and  Technology blog entry on June 15 by Beth Noveck, White House deputy chief technology officer.

“PACER, the federal courts' court records online system, imposes eight cent per page cost that several speakers commented on as limiting access to court records,” Noveck wrote in the blog.

Schultze’s activity is part of a broader movement for more free and open public access to government legal documents, known as Law.gov, sponsored by several academics and other advocates being coordinated by Public.Resource.org, which is a non-profit organization.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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