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Fix the Court: Judges Are Lobbying Against PACER Reform Bill

A gavel in a stock photo
(Image credit: Witthaya Prasongsin via Getty Images)

The federal judiciary is lobbying against a proposed bill that would make the PACER court records system free to electronic and print journalists and the public, according to talking points obtained by Fix the Court.

Currently a 10-cents-per-page charge is levied for access to the database of judicial proceedings including briefs motions, orders, and transcripts, a figure that can add up for lengthy or complicated cases with multiple filings, though fees are capped for some documents.

Related: Bill Would Make PACER Records Free

Fix the Court said the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which oversees the federal court system, is getting dozens of judges to lobby against the Open Courts Act (HR 8235), citing a talking points memo it says the office has issued to judges to use when contacting their members of Congress asking them to oppose the bill. 

Those include that the bill would create a new "completely unnecessary" $2 billion filing system--Fix the Court and others call that figure ludicrous), that the system would be a back-breaking cost borne by litigants, that the bill creates more problems than it fixes, and that while the system is supposed to be paid entirely by user fees, there are already so many waivers and exceptions that most people pay nothing for it already.

PACER does not charge for court opinions, for viewing case information from courthouse terminals, or until an account has more than $15 in charges in a quarter, and parties to cases get one free copy if that is required by law or the filer of the document directs that that be the case.

PACER allows courts to exempt certain classes of people, including indigents and those in bankruptcy, but says, in general, that nobody who can pay should get out of the fee, including "members of the media."

Then there is the administrative burden. The talking points memo advises the judges to say that "would require my court to inefficiently and imprecisely analyze filings to impose these fees, adding additional burdens to an already strained work force and docket."

“Federal judges should not be lending their names and reputations to an ill-advised, ethically dubious lobbying effort,” said Fix the Court Executive Director Gabe Roth. “Instead of waging a campaign of grievance and misinformation, the judiciary ought to work with lawmakers on a legislative fix," he said.

Among the fixes needed are to how PACER uses the money it already collects. Roth points out that a federal appeals court has ruled that the judiciary has used PACER revenue to pay for non-PACER programs, which, ironically, is a violation of the federal laws the judiciary system is charged with helping preserve and protect.

Roth also points out there is an ongoing lawsuit over PACER fees and there could potentially be some overlap between that case and the judges being urged to lobby against the PACER reform bill.