Problems with PACER: The Electronic Public Access Service for US Court Documents

April 30, 2019  

  • Blog

Every minute, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. On Instagram, 95 million photos and clips are shared every single day. The structure of the information that we share has become increasingly complex since the Internet was first adopted, but we always find ways to make the sharing of this content faster and easier than ever.

Despite the great strides that have been made in information exchange, the system used to hold and transmit public records from around the nation has not caught up. PACER, or the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, was designed and implemented in 1988 as an innovation to store and access all public documents. Each page would cost 7 cents to retrieve, a modest fee considering there was no proper web browser until 1993. However, the service has not improved in ways one would hope.

While the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (which manages the system) has taken some measures to make the service more accessible to users, the PACER program still operates in largely the same archaic manner. There is no public search portal to look for specific material, and it now costs 10 cents to download or simply search for a single page of a pdf. If a similar fee were required to perform a search on Google, it would effectively end the use of the search engine as we know it today.

The good news is that legislation to address this issue has been introduced in this session of Congress by Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). H.R. 1164, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, would require that documents filed with a federal court must be publicly accessible upon filing and that documents on PACER must be available to the public and to parties before the court “free of charge”. While the bill will require the support of the Democrats and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary committee, the first version of the bill has co-sponsors from both parties. While not a guarantee, it is an indicator of potential passage in the future.