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My $3.52 Worth of PACER

As you might have noticed, I was inspired to register for a PACER account because of the presentation from the Six State Virtual Conference. Today I’d like to share my brief initial experience with PACER.

I received my password a few hours after applying for it. Today I logged into PACER and decided to look for documents related to Perry et al v. Schwarzenegger. I realize that some documents in this case are already publicly available, but I wanted something to search that I knew would be in the system.

First I clicked on the database link for the Northern District of California, since I knew the case was heard in San Francisco.

The resulting search screen offered my several choices, including searching by attorney name. I tried Theodore Olsen, knowing he was one of the attorneys. I got back two cases, but neither was Perry et al v. Schwarzenegger. I was charged $0.08. According to PACER documentation, I would have been charged $0.08 even if I had zero results.

So I did a quick Google search to learn that Perry’s first name was Kristen and did a party search for Kristen Perry. I immediately got Case Number 3:09-ev-02292-VRW, better known as Perry et al v. Schwarzenegger. This also cost me $0.08, but since I got a useful result, I didn’t mind.

I looked at the Case Summary ($0.08). I looked at the Case File Location ($0.08) and determined the case files might still be with Judge Walker. Then I looked at the Docket Report. There were 742 files associated with the case. PACER determined that this should be charged as 30 pages or $2.40.

Browsing through the list I decided to pull up a 10 page letter from “Voter X” which was sent to Judge Walker during the trial. This person said they feared retaliation from pro-same sex marriage forces and represented themselves as just one of the many voters who voted for Prop 8. The letter was written like a legal brief and I suspect the author was an attorney or paralegal. Viewing and downloading this letter cost me $0.80.

By now I had spent $3.52. PACER waives $10/quarter, so if I stop here, I won’t be charged this quarter. But what if I wanted to look at multiple documents?. At $0.08 a page, I had 81 pages left. And if I reloaded the Docket Report a few times instead of remembering to open documents into a new browser tab, I could have only opened up a document or two before getting charged for real, because each refresh of the Docket Report would have been another $2.40/30 pages.

I started playing with PACER to see if it was worth recommending registration to those library patrons looking to retrieve federal court documents. I need to think about it some more, but at the moment my feeling is that $10.00 worth of free access doesn’t go very far. And it would probably be used up quickest by the very patrons I would want to recommend it to. Folks who may want a lot of briefs and filings but who are not great searchers.

But I haven’t totally made up my mind about this. What do you think? If you work in a non-court library, have you gotten patrons to register for PACER? What has been your experience?

I do suggest that librarians should register for PACER accounts and search around to see what’s available. Then decide for yourselves whether to lobby Congress to free this resource so people can explore the law without watching the meter.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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