The Courts Have an Embarrassingly Bad Web Presence

by on February 6, 2009 · 13 comments

Steve Schultze and I don’t agree about network neutrality regulation, but he and Shubham Mukherjee recently gave a fantastic talk on public access to court records. By law, federal court proceedings are not subject to copyright protection. However, the federal courts have a byzantine web-based reporting system called PACER that offers 1990s-era search functionality and charges eight cents per page for access to court documents. Astonishingly, this includes search results. Run a search on PACER that turns up no results, and the federal judiciary will charge you eight cents for the privilege of learning that your search returned no results. Run a search on PACER that turns up a lot of results and you get charged as much as $2.40 for a single search. The system has no keyword search, and there isn’t a single, integrated PACER system: each district and circuit court maintains its own records, and so you must already know which court’s PACER web site to visit before you conduct your search.

The system generates about $60 million per year in revenues for the court system, at an incalculable cost to the rest of us. Access to these documents is essential to understanding the laws that govern us. They are not subject to copyright, and they should be made as widely and cheaply available as technically feasible. Twenty years ago, PACER was a great step forward when it was first implemented more than a decade ago, but it’s now painfully behind the times. Steve and Shubham are working on a paper on this topic, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  • Seth Cooper

    Yes, PACER is an uwieldy system. Thanks for mentioning that paper. I look forward to reading it.

    Unfortunately, the systems in many state courts is far worse. I've visited the web sites of all or most all state high courts and while there is a lot of variation, some are just awful. In many states there's just about nothing there in terms of what cases the courts are considering for review, what cases the courts have accepted for review, or when the courts will hear arguments in cases they've accepted.

  • MikeRT

    They have all of that money to throw at pork and welfare programs, but cannot afford to modernize court IT systems. Just like Bush had $500B to spend on prescription drugs, but not $100M to hire 10,000 new border patrol agents for the southern border (which, ironically, we REALLY need if you've been paying attention to the state of Mexico).

  • sjschultze

    Video of the talk will be posted soon, and I'll see if I can get the slides posted in PDF form as well. The problem with PACER is not just that it's unwieldy but that it prohibits third-party innovation of the sort innovation that several of Tim's colleagues recently described in their paper, “Government Data and the Invisible Hand“. Peter Martin has a more PACER-specific paper called “Online Access to Court Records.” Peter Winn has a great forthcoming paper also called “On-Line Access to Court Records” that delves more into privacy issues. Winn speaks about his work in this video.

    For what it's worth, the states might be starting down the slippery slope of closed-door fee-based access, as they begin to experiment with the PACER (aka CM/ECF) system themselves.

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