House to Consider Free Online Access to Federal Court Docs

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The House Judiciary Committee is marking up a bill this week that would mitigate the PACER online legal document service to a free service to the public (it currently costs 10 cents per page) over the next several years.

The Open Courts Act is backed by Fix the Courts, which has urged consideration of various free online access to federal court bills—the Electronic Court Records Reform Acts in the House (H.R. 1164) and Senate (S. 2064) and the PACER section in the 21st Century Courts Act (H.R. 6017).

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“The third branch has been profiting off researchers, media and nonprofits via its ridiculous and outdated [PACER] paywall for too long," said Fix the Court's Gabe Roth. "That’s why Fix the Court urges the Judiciary Committee to vote this bill out of committee tomorrow and for House leadership to move it to the floor soon after.”

Fix the Court has renewed hope of revamping the system after an Aug. 6 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upholding a district court ruling that the PACER fees were excessive and implicated the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings. "If large swaths of the public cannot afford the fees required to access court records, it will diminish the public’s ability 'to participate in and serve as a check upon the judicial process—an essential component in our structure of self-government,'" the Federal Circuit concluded.

PACER charges because Congress never appropriated money to cover operating expenses. PACER was launched by the Judicial Conference, which relies on money from Congress to operate.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.