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This is welcome news re the US Supreme Court. Fulfilling a promise outlined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in his 2014 year-end report on the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court is adopting electronic filing for all of its cases. The new electronic filing system will begin operation on November 13, 2017. Full and free Supreme Court dockets will be a boon to lawyers, researchers, students, and the public. Is this the beginning of the end for the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system (he says hopefully!)?
After lagging behind other courts for years, the Supreme Court is finally catching up on a key technological feature that will be a boon to researchers, lawyers and analysts of all kinds. It’s moving to adopt electronic filing.
The change will allow the public to access legal filings for all future cases — free of charge. Beginning Nov. 13, the court will require “parties who are represented by counsel” to upload digital copies of their paper submissions. Parties representing themselves will have their filings uploaded by the court’s staff.
All those submissions will then be entered into an online docket for each case, and they will be accessible from the court’s homepage.
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) document system of the US Courts provides online access to US Appellate, District and Bankruptcy court records. But this access is not free; PACER charges users $.10/page to access and download court documents. For years, many have pointed out both the technical and philosophical problems with the the PACER system; In fact, the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and the Free Law Project got together to create a firefox/chrome extension called RECAP, which allows users to automatically search for free copies during a search in the fee-based online US legal database PACER, and to help build up a free alternative database at the Internet Archive.
So it should come as no surprise that the US Courts Administrative Office is getting sued because, the plaintiffs say that PACER is using bad math to overcharge users. Below is the crux of the tech dirt article.
Bryndon Fisher says PACERs math is screwy. He dug into PACERs page calculations and, according to his class action lawsuit, it almost always adds its bytes up incorrectly. (via Courthouse News and Venkat Balasubramani):
Based on an extensive investigation into PACER’s billing practices, PACER exhibits a systemic error that overcharges users for accessing docket reports in violation of its stated policies and procedures.
The basic problem is simple. PACER claims to charge users $0.10 for each page in a docket report, up to a maximum charge of $3.00 per transaction. Since by default, these docket reports are displayed in HTML format, PACER uses a formula based on the number of bytes in a docket to determine the number of billable pages. One billable pages equals 4,320 extracted bytes.
In reality, however, the PACER billing system contains an error. PACER artificially inflates the number of bytes in each extracted page, counting some of those bytes five times instead of just once. As a result, users are systematically overcharged for certain docket reports.
Fisher says this error is resulting in overcharges for everyone using PACER. He tallied up his costs and found PACERs bad math caused a significant cost increase.
During the past two years, Fisher accessed 184 court docket reports using PACER and was charged and paid a total of $109.40 to the AO for this access. These charges do not include access to the individual PDF documents, only access to the docket reports.
Over this two-year period, based on the formula contained in the PACER User Manual, Fisher should have been charged $72.40, representing an overcharge of $37.00 or approximately 51%.
Great news from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts:
A project providing free online access to federal court opinions has expanded to include 64 courts. The federal Judiciary and the Government Printing Office partner through the GPO’s Federal Digital System, FDsys, to provide public access to more than 750,000 opinions, many dating back to 2004.
The Judicial Conference approved national implementation of the project in September 2012, expanding participation from the original 29 courts. FDsys currently contains opinions from 8 appellate courts, 20 district courts, and 35 bankruptcy courts.
Federal court opinions are one of the most heavily used collections on FDsys, with millions of retrievals each month. Opinions are pulled nightly from the courts’ Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) systems and sent to the GPO, where they are posted on the FDsys website. Collections on FDsys are divided into appellate, district or bankruptcy court opinions and are text-searchable across courts. FDsys also allows embedded animation and audio – an innovation previously only available with opinions posted on a court’s own website or on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER).
While the public already can view federal court opinions for free on PACER [users do need to register for a PACER account and there are limits on how much is available for free], the FDSys project presents just another way to make court-related information more accessible to the public. The FDSys project presents another way to make court-related information more accessible to the public.
[HT Gary Price at InfoDocket!]
“PACER Federal Court Record Fees Exceed System Costs”. Shane Shifflett and Jennifer Gollan, California Watch.
While the report notes that Senator Lieberman and AALL have been trying to persuade the Administrative Office of the US Courts, it should also be noted that other library associations have been in on this fight for quite a while including the Depository Library Council to the US Public Printer and ALA’s Government Documents Round Table (GODORT).
Along with official calls for free access to US court documents, there’s also been a grassroots effort to wrest control of these public domain documents in the form of RECAP (that’s PACER backwards ;-)), a firefox plugin built by the fine folks at the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) at Princeton University. The plugin automatically donates purchased PACER documents into a public repository hosted by the Internet Archive. Perhaps this report along with official calls from politicians and librarians will be enough to finally get the Administrative Office of the US Courts to fix PACER and offer free access to US Court documents as it should be!
The federal government has collected millions from the online Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER – nearly five times what it cost to run the system.
Between fiscal years 2006 and 2010, the government collected an average of $77 million a year from PACER fees, according to the most recent federal figures available…
In recent years, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and the American Association of Law Libraries, which represents 5,000 law librarians nationwide, have tried without success to persuade the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and members of Congress to provide free access to PACER records.
Earlier this year, the Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of The Bay Citizen, applied for a limited exemption from PACER fees to research potential judicial conflicts in California. Such fee waivers are typically given to academics and nonprofits “to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to information.” CIR is a nonprofit organization.
[HT to Gary Price at InfoDocket for alerting us to this report!]