On February 14, LII Director Thomas R. Bruce was asked to testify before a hearing at the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet. The subject of his testimony was the future direction of PACER, the recordkeeping system that is used by the Federal courts to keep track of their work, to publish the resulting Federal court decisions, and to allow efficient submission of documents needed for that process. He was the sole expert testifying before the committee on that matter.
PACER has long been controversial for a number of reasons. The biggest is the system of fees associated with it. Established in order to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the system, PACER fees now generate millions of dollars in excess revenue each year, becoming, in effect, a general fund for court technology projects. Second, it is very hard to find things in PACER. PACER’s search-and-retrieval technology for judicial opinions is severely outdated, but attempts at change have been strongly resisted out of fear of change. Finally, there are a number of more technical problems involving the apparatus of citation and metadata in use in the system.
Unsurprisingly, Tom’s testimony argued for major changes in the system, most importantly that fees be removed and the publication process be handed off to the Government Publishing Office, which already has a useful pilot program in place. Removing PACER fees, and thus bringing about fairer and more open access to all Federal judicial opinions, would be a major victory for open access to law. Let’s hope it happens soon.