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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Reader comments

Tue, Jul 27, 2010

Mr. Schultze's analysis has been deficient, to be generous. PACER is not just an interface to CM/ECF -- it is CM/ECF and it includes the secure communications structure that CM/ECF requires.. The idea that CM/ECF should be funded separately ultimately means an incredible increase in costs to the US taxpayer since PACER would have to be wholly separated from CM/ECF -- creating a parallel project with all the attendant costs. He also fails to appreciate (or at least factor in) the administrative structure of the courts. Changing PACER and it's infrastructure to a system funded by appropriations actually endangers access and could severely hamper innovation.

Thu, Jul 8, 2010 Daniel Arlington, VA

I'm surprised that no one has highlighted RECAP - which is a clever Firefox extension for searching PACER which also rehosts the downloaded files at the Internet Archive, thus driving down cost for previously requested records. See www.recapthelaw.org.

Thu, Jul 8, 2010 Editor

Mr. Malamud's point of clarification on the role of the Center for American Progress is correct. We have corrected the story accordingly. We thank him for calling our attention to the matter. - David Rapp, Editor-in-Chief

Thu, Jul 8, 2010 Steve Schultze

Just a quick response to the comments so far. First, charges are capped at $2.40 per document, so that clerk doesn't quite have their facts straight (also, certain documents like transcripts do not have a cap). Unfortunately, the cap doesn't serve as a meaningful limit on charges during typical use. Users are charged for each search they perform to find the documents in the first place, which are priced according to the number of results, and in some cases individual search queries have no cap on their cost (and users do not know what the cost will be ahead of time, resulting in several-hundred-dollar searches). Users must also pay per "page" of docket report that they view in order to locate documents they wish to download, and they must re-incur these fees every time they wish to see if new actions have occurred on a case. It is also important to note that any given case will have many documents, so obtaining all relevant documents for a case can be a hundreds-of-dollars endeavor. Finally, because PACER search features are so poor (or non-existent) many uses of the data are essentially impossible. For instance, to get the type of data I would need to conduct an analysis of judicial bias, I would need to spend millions of dollars. The courts no doubt need to upgrade their systems, but PACER is a public interface on the electronic case filing system that should be funded independently but is currently being cross-subsidized by PACER fees. Even within the domain of pure-PACER expenses, the system could be run far more efficiently (including by publishing the data in bulk for third-parties to build more useful user interfaces... like the USPTO has done with the patent database). The problem is that the courts are under no budget pressure to realize such efficiencies because PACER brings in so much revenue. You may find my post on the subject illuminating: http://managingmiracles.blogspot.com/2010/05/what-is-electronic-public-access-to.html Finally, the Center for American Progress is not a "sponsor" of Law.gov. Law.gov is organized by the non-profit Public.Resource.Gov, and CAP is no more a sponsor than the other groups that hosted Law.gov events: Berkeley Law, Univ of Colorado Law, Columbia Law, Cornell Law, Duke Law, Harvard Law, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford Law, U of Texas Law, or Yale Law. See: http://public.resource.org/law.gov/

Thu, Jul 8, 2010

Actually the cap is 30 pages at a charge of 2.40. Which indeed makes it even a sweeter deal!

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