October 20, 2018

Judge Declares Some PACER Fees Illegal but Does Not Go Far Enough

Five years ago, in a post called “Making Excuses for Fees on Electronic Public Records,” I described my attempts to persuade the federal Judiciary to stop charging for access to their web-based system, PACER (“Public Access to Court Electronic Records”). Nearly every search, page view, and PDF download from the system incurs a fee ranging from 10 cents to $3 (or, in some cases, much more). I chronicled the many excuses that the courts have provided for charging what amounts to $150 million in fees every year for something that should—by all reasonable accounts—not cost much to provide.

I thought the courts were violating the law. I suggested that someone file suit. Two years later, the good folks at Gupta/Wessler did (in partnership with Motley Rice). Yesterday, Judge Huvelle of the US District Court for the District of Columbia agreed—in part. You can read her opinion here, and see all documents in the case here. Under her ruling, approximately $200 million will likely be returned to people who paid PACER fees from 2010 to 2016. This is good, but not good enough.

It also does not address the larger constitutional issues that I raise in my forthcoming paper, “The Price of Ignorance: The Constitutional Cost of Fees for Access to Electronic Public Court Records.”

Judge Huvelle is a good and fair judge. She rejected the reasoning of both the plaintiffs and the defendants (the Judiciary). Instead, she substituted her own analysis. Unfortunately, her analysis was both legally and technically flawed. Under her ruling, PACER fee-payers will not recover another $750 million (or so) of fees that I think are unlawful. The rest of this post explains why, and what might be next.

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Free Law Project Partnering in Stewardship of RECAP

More than five years ago, I spoke at CITP about the US Federal Courts electronic access system called PACER. I noted that despite centuries of precedent stating that the public should have access to the law as openly and freely as possible, the courts were charging unreasonable rates for access to the public record. As it happened, David Robinson, Harlan Yu, Bill Zeller, and Ed Felten had recently written their paper “Government Data and the Invisible Hand“, arguing that:

…the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.

After my talk, Harlan Yu and Tim Lee approached me with an idea to make millions of court records available for free: a simple browser extension that made it easy for individuals to share the records that they had purchased from PACER with others who were looking for the same records. The idea became RECAP (“turning PACER around”), and the tool has indeed helped to liberate millions of public records in the years since then. But the time has come to turn over our stewardship, and we could not be more pleased that CITP is announcing a new partnership with Free Law Project to take over and expand upon RECAP.
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Two Major updates to RECAP: Developers from Around the World Write Code in Memory of Aaron Swartz

A little over two months ago, we joined with the Think Computer Foundation to offer a set of grants in memory of our friend Aaron Swartz. Aaron worked on many issues in his too-short life, but one of those was liberating American court records from behind a pay-wall. He helped to inspire our RECAP project, which has allowed thousands of people to legally liberate and share millions of public records.

We didn’t know if anyone would take up the challenge, but today we are extremely pleased to award two of these grants. These awards recognize some truly amazing coding by software developers that were inspired by Aaron Swartz and his causes. Over the past several years, the two most-requested features for RECAP have been support for US Courts of Appeals (a.k.a. circuit courts), and a version of RECAP that works with the Chrome browser.

Ka-Ping Yee, Filippo Valsorda, and Alessio Palmero Aprosio represent the best kind of technological idealists. They are idealists that not only believe in worthy causes, but also have the engineering expertise and the dogged determination to see their vision through. Read more about them and install their code at recapthelaw.org.