PACER (law)
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PACER (
acronym An acronym is a word or name formed from the initial components of a longer name or phrase. Acronyms are usually formed from the initial letters of words, as in ''NATO'' (''North Atlantic Treaty Organization''), but sometimes use syllables, as ...
for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is an electronic public access service for United States federal court documents. It allows users to obtain case and docket information from the
United States district court The United States district courts are the trial courts of the United States federal judiciary, U.S. federal judiciary. There is one district court for each United States federal judicial district, federal judicial district, which each cover o ...
s,
United States courts of appeals The United States courts of appeals are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal judiciary. The courts of appeals are divided into 11 numbered circuits that cover geographic areas of the United States and hear appeals fro ...
, and
United States bankruptcy court United States bankruptcy courts are Federal tribunals in the United States, courts created under Article I of the United States Constitution. The current system of bankruptcy courts was created by the United States Congress in 1978, effective Ap ...
s. The system is managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in accordance with the policies of the
Judicial Conference The Judicial Conference of the United States, formerly known as the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, was created by the United States Congress in 1922 with the principal objective of framing policy guidelines for administration of judicial cour ...
, headed by the Chief Justice of the United States. , it holds more than 500 million documents. Each court maintains its own system, with a small subset of information from each case transferred to the U.S. Party/Case Index server, located in
San Antonio, Texas ("Cradle of Freedom") , image_map = , mapsize = 220px , map_caption = Interactive map of San Antonio , subdivision_type = Country , subdivision_name = United States , subdivision_type1= U.S. state, State , subdivision_name1 = Texas , s ...
at the PACER Service Center, each night. Records are submitted to the individual courts using the Federal Judiciary's Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, and usually accepts the filing of documents in the
Portable Document Format Portable Document Format (PDF), standardized as ISO 32000, is a file format developed by Adobe Systems, Adobe in 1992 to present documents, including text formatting and images, in a manner independent of application software, Computer hardware, ...
(PDF) through the courts' electronic court filing (e-filing) system. Each court maintains its own databases with case information. Because PACER database systems are maintained within each court, each
jurisdiction Jurisdiction (from Latin 'law' + 'declaration') is the legal term for the legal authority granted to a legal entity to enact justice. In federations like the United States, areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state, and federal levels. Jur ...
will have a different
URL A Uniform Resource Locator (URL), colloquially termed as a web address, is a reference to a web resource that specifies its location on a computer network A computer network is a set of computers sharing resources located on or provide ...
. PACER has been criticized for being technically out of date and hard to use, and for demanding fees for records that are in the
public domain The public domain (PD) consists of all the creative work to which no Exclusive exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable. Because those rights have ...
. , legal challenges regarding the fees were successful. Legislative action to eliminate them are in progress. '', Courthouse News, February 13, 2019 In reaction, nonprofit projects have begun to make such documents available online for free. One such project, RECAP, was contributed to by activist
Aaron Swartz Aaron Hillel Swartz (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013) was an American computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer, and Internet hacktivist. A prolific programmer, Swartz helped develop the web feed format RSS, the te ...
; his downloading activities were investigated by the federal government. Although no crime was committed and no charges filed, the government closed its program of providing free public access to PACER.


Available information

The PACER System offers electronic access to case dockets to retrieve information such as: * A listing of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys, and trustees * A compilation of case related information such as cause of action, case number, nature of suit, and dollar demand * A chronology of dates of case events entered in the case record * A claims registry * A listing of new cases each day * Appellate court opinions * Judgments or case status * Types of documents filed for certain cases * Many courts offer imaged copies of documents


Acceptable use of information

The information gathered from the PACER system is a matter of public record and may be reproduced without permission.


History

PACER started in 1988 as a system accessible only by terminals in libraries and office buildings. Starting in 2001, PACER was made available over the Web.


Costs, revenues and free alternatives

The
United States Congress The United States Congress is the legislature of the federal government of the United States. It is Bicameralism, bicameral, composed of a lower body, the United States House of Representatives, House of Representatives, and an upper body, ...
has given the
Judicial Conference of the United States The Judicial Conference of the United States, formerly known as the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, was created by the United States Congress The United States Congress is the legislature of the federal government of the United State ...
authority to impose user fees for electronic access to case information. All registered agencies or individuals are charged a user fee. The fee, as of April 1, 2012, to access the web-based PACER systems is $0.10 per page. Prior to that the fee was $0.08 per page and prior to January 1, 2005, the fee was $0.07 per page. The per page charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches with a one-page charge for no matches. The charge applies whether or not pages are printed, viewed, or downloaded. There is a maximum charge of $3.00 for electronic access to any single document other than name searches, reports that are not case-specific, and transcripts of federal court proceedings. In March 2001, the
Judicial Conference of the United States The Judicial Conference of the United States, formerly known as the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, was created by the United States Congress The United States Congress is the legislature of the federal government of the United State ...
decided that no fee would be owed until a user accrued more than $10 worth of charges in a calendar year. If an account does not accrue $10 worth of usage between January 1 and December 31 of a year, the amount owed would be zeroed. In March 2010, that limit was effectively quadrupled, with users not billed unless their charges exceed $10 in a quarterly billing period. Beginning in 2012, the limit was $15 per quarter. Effective with Version 2.4 (March 7, 2005) of the PACER software, to comply with the E-Government Act of 2002, written opinions that "set forth a reasoned explanation for a court's decision" are supposed to be free of charge, but are sometimes billed for. In order to facilitate access to written opinions, the court system also provides them on CourtWeb, which does not require PACER registration but only has records from (as of Aug 2016) 30 courts. Fee revenues get plowed back to the courts to finance technology. The ''
New York Times ''The New York Times'' (''the Times'', ''NYT'', or the Gray Lady) is a daily newspaper based in New York City with a worldwide readership reported in 2020 to comprise a declining 840,000 paid print subscribers, and a growing 6 million paid d ...
'' reported PACER revenues exceeded costs by about $150 million, as of 2008 according to court reports. According to the Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule adopted by the Judicial Conference on 13 September 2011: :Consistent with Judicial Conference policy, courts may, upon a showing of cause, exempt
indigent Poverty is the state of having few material possessions or little income. Poverty can have diverse social, economic, and political causes and effects. When evaluating poverty in ...
s, bankruptcy case trustees, individual
research Research is "creativity, creative and systematic work undertaken to increase the stock of knowledge". It involves the collection, organization and analysis of evidence to increase understanding of a topic, characterized by a particular att ...
ers associated with
educational institution An educational institution is a place where people of different ages gain an education, including preschools, childcare, primary-elementary schools, secondary-high schools, and universities. They provide a large variety of learning environments an ...
s, courts, section 501(c)(3)
not-for-profit A nonprofit organization (NPO) or non-profit organisation, also known as a non-business entity, not-for-profit organization, or nonprofit institution, is a legal entity organized and operated for a collective, public or social benefit, in co ...
organizations, court appointed
pro bono ( en, 'for the public good'), usually shortened to , is a Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Ti ...
attorneys, and pro bono ADR neutrals from payment of these fees. Courts must find that parties from the classes of persons or entities listed above seeking exemption have demonstrated that an exemption is necessary in order to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to information. For individual researchers, courts must also find that the defined research project is intended for academic research, and not for commercial purposes or internet redistribution. Any user granted an exemption agrees not to sell for profit the data obtained as a result. Any transfer of data obtained as the result of a fee exemption is prohibited unless expressly authorized by the court. Exemptions may be granted for a definite period of time and may be revoked at the discretion of the court granting the exemption. A "policy note" attached to the Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule states: :Courts should not exempt local, state or federal government agencies, members of the media, attorneys or others not members of one of the groups listed above. Exemptions should be granted as the exception, not the rule. A court may not use this exemption language to exempt all users. An exemption applies only to access related to the case or purpose for which it was given. The prohibition on transfer of information received without fee is not intended to bar a quote or reference to information received as a result of a fee exemption in a scholarly or other similar work. Some courts such as the District Court for the District of Massachusetts have explicitly stated that "fee exempt PACER users must refrain from the use of RECAP," In 2009, the ''
Los Angeles Times The ''Los Angeles Times'' (abbreviated as ''LA Times'') is a daily newspaper A newspaper is a Periodical literature, periodical publication containing written News, information about current events and is often typed in black ink with a ...
'' stated that RECAP cuts into PACER revenue about $10 million. Fees are not charged against federal agencies providing services authorized by the
Criminal Justice Act Criminal Justice Act (with its many variations) is a stock short title used for legislation in Canada, Malaysia, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom relating to the criminal law (including both substantive and procedural aspects of that ...
().


Litigation over fees

In December 2015, Bryndon Fisher, a Seattle resident, filed a
class-action lawsuit A class action, also known as a class-action lawsuit, class suit, or representative action, is a type of lawsuit where one of the parties is a group of people who are represented collectively by a member or members of that group. The class action ...
in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims against the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, alleging that PACER overcharges its subscribers by billing by the number of bytes generated instead of by page count, and by overcounting the number of bytes. The case remains pending In April 2016, three
non-profit organization A nonprofit organization (NPO) or non-profit organisation, also known as a non-business entity, not-for-profit organization, or nonprofit institution, is a legal entity organized and operated for a collective, public or social benefit, in co ...
s—the
Alliance for Justice Alliance for Justice (AFJ) is a progressive judicial advocacy group in the United States. Founded in 1979 by former president Nan Aron, AFJ monitors federal judicial appointments. AFJ represents a coalition of 100 politically leftist groups that ...
, the National Veterans Legal Services Program and the National Consumer Law Center—filed another class-action lawsuit, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, against the Administrative Office, alleging that the PACER fee structure did not conform to the E-Government Act of 2002, in that the fees were not only being used to maintain the system itself, but were being diverted to cover other costs of the federal courts, including courtroom audio systems and flat-screen televisions for jury use. In January 2017, judge Ellen Huvelle certified the class action. In March 2018, the judge ruled that the PACER fees were impermissibly used to cover unrelated costs; In August 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment, remanding the case to the trial court to continue with the case. In November 2016, another putative class action relating to PACER was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The plaintiff there claims that PACER fails to provide its users with free access to "judicial opinions," in violation of PACER's contracts with its users as well as the E-Government Act of 2002. In September 2017, District Court Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. dismissed the case; the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal on June 15, 2020.


Proposed reform legislation

PACER reform proposals have been introduced in Congress since the
115th Congress The 115th United States Congress was a meeting of the legislative branch of the United States of America federal government, composed of the United States Senate, Senate and the United States House of Representatives, House of Representatives. ...
. The
117th Congress The 117th United States Congress is the current meeting of the United States Congress, legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives. It convened ...
saw the introduction of the Open Courts Act of 2021 (/), which would temporarily increase fees for entities who currently spend more than $25,000 a quarter on download fees in order to fund a transition to a system with free downloads. A Congressional Budget Office report estimated that the new system would cost about one-fifth the cost of PACER to operate, but their estimate for the total cost of setting up the system surprised at least one of the bill's sponsors. Previous unenacted bills include the Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2018 (), introduced in the 115th Congress, and the Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2019 (/) in the
116th Congress The 116th United States Congress was a meeting of the legislative branch of the Federal government of the United States, United States federal government, composed of the United States Senate, Senate and the United States House of Representativ ...
.


Reception

''The New York Times'' has criticized PACER as "cumbersome, arcane and not free." In 2008, an effort led by
Carl Malamud Carl Malamud (born July 2, 1959) is an American technologist, author, and public domain advocate, known for his foundation Public.Resource.Org. He founded the Internet Multicasting Service. During his time with this group, he was responsible for ...
(who said that PACER is "15 to 20 years out of date" and that it should not demand fees for documents that are in the
public domain The public domain (PD) consists of all the creative work to which no Exclusive exclusive intellectual property rights apply. Those rights may have expired, been forfeited, expressly waived, or may be inapplicable. Because those rights have ...
) spent $600,000 in contributions to put a 50-year archive of records from the federal courts of appeals online for free. In a critical article, the magazine ''
Reason Reason is the capacity of Consciousness, consciously applying logic by Logical consequence, drawing conclusions from new or existing information, with the aim of seeking the truth. It is closely associated with such characteristically human activ ...
'' described the system as "archaic as a barrister's wig." Also in 2008, district courts, with the help of the
Government Printing Office The United States Government Publishing Office (USGPO or GPO; formerly the United States Government Printing Office) is an agency of the Legislature, legislative branch of the United States Federal government. The office produces and distribute ...
(GPO), opened a free trial of Pacer at 17 libraries around the country. After activist
Aaron Swartz Aaron Hillel Swartz (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013) was an American computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer, and Internet hacktivist. A prolific programmer, Swartz helped develop the web feed format RSS, the te ...
, following an appeal by Malamud, downloaded about 2.7 million documents through a Sacramento library computer (less than 1% of the entire database, although the number has been stated incorrectly as 20% or 25%),Ryan Singel
FBI Investigated Coder for Liberating Paywalled Court Records
Wired.com, October 5, 2009
to make them freely available to the public on Public.Resource.Org, the experiment was ended in late September 2008, with a notice from the GPO that the pilot program was suspended, "pending an evaluation." In October, a GPO representative said that "the security of the Pacer service was compromised." A FOIA request revealed later that the
FBI The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the domestic intelligence and security service of the United States and its principal federal law enforcement agency. Operating under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Justice ...
had opened a full investigation against Swartz, which was dropped in April. In 2009, a team from
Princeton University Princeton University is a private university, private research university in Princeton, New Jersey. Founded in 1746 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Elizabeth as the College of New Jersey, Princeton is the List of Colonial Colleges, fourth-oldest ins ...
and Harvard University's Berkman Center created software called " RECAP" which allows users to automatically search for free copies during a PACER search, and to help building up a free alternative database at the
Internet Archive The Internet Archive is an American digital library with the stated mission of "universal access to all knowledge". It provides free public access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, software applications/games, music, ...
.


See also

* Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) * California Court Case Management System (CCMS) * New York State Courts Electronic Filing System (NYSCEF) * MassCourts * RECAP * CaseMap * RECAP US Federal Court Documents (collection)


References


External links

* {{authority control Legal software Federal judiciary of the United States Government databases in the United States Online law databases 1988 establishments in the United States American legal websites Government services web portals in the United States E-government in the United States