Ars Technica picks up on PACER

Timothy B. Lee, writing at Ars Technica, the Conde Nast owned technology site, has an thorough state-of-play summary of the federal courts’ public access system, PACER.

PACER, an acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, was once widely praised by its users as a major convenience, one that produced easier access to lawyers and others tracking the progress of cases through the courts.

But it’s outmoded in an Internet age. PACER still charges users to create a user-ID, provide a credit card, and pay eight cents a page for each document. It seems that’s the legacy of PACER’s old way of doing things, even though the internet long obviated the system’s original need for a proprietary and expensive telephone dial-up hosts. The database’s search function also draws complaints, and while there are better commercial legal search systems (like Lexis-Nexis and WestLaw) available, access to them is very expensive. Transparency advocates and some legal scholars quite reasonably argue that cost-impediments to court records, in a legal system where so much is determined on legal precedent, are hardly conducive to fair representation.

As Lee’s article points out, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has recently been engaged in some sharp correspondence with PACER’s administrators, concerned, in part, with ascertaining more about how, exactly, a system charged in 2002 with increasing free access has accumulated a surplus of $150 million dollars.

Government outsiders have grown tired of waiting for PACER reform, and instead are taking advantage of the documents’ intrinsic public domain status and posting them themselves. One person heavily involved is Carl Malamud. Over the last 15 some years, he’s helped pull off similar tricks with patent data, FEC information, and building codes, and now runs his one-man-band non-profit Public.Resource.Org from California.

But now, as I described in a recent CJR profile, he’s looking to move to the East Coast and lead the Government Printing Office as the Obama-appointed Public Printer. And while, yes, technically, PACER isn’t a GPO remit, that isn’t the kind of detail likely to stop Malamud should he get the White House call.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.