from i’ll-be-rich! depth

You may recall that in 2016 there was a lawsuit filed against the US federal court system and how it charged PACER. If you don’t know, PACER is the court system’s electronic filing/records system that allows users to access documents in federal court. It looks and acts like it was designed in the 1990s, and it costs absolutely ridiculous amounts to use. Each “page” costs $0.05, and that includes all the searches you do (with a somewhat arbitrary definition of “page.”) The problem is that The law which allows the court system to charge for PACER says quite clearly that courts can only charge “reasonable fees” and can only do so to the extent necessary to fund the PACER system itself.

But that didn’t happen. The court system has turned PACER’s ridiculous charges into a sort of meaningless bill to use for all sorts of other things. Some of these costs may have been useful (courts have admitted to spending them on flat-screen monitors for jurors and “the latest audio technology”), but they are still not what the law allows, and if these things are important, they should be allocated by Congress, not through the abuse of PACER fees.

In 2017, the case became a class action. In 2018, the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying the court system overreached through PACER. As the court said:

The Court does not see how flat-screen televisions for jurors or those seated in the courtroom, which are used to present evidence or other evidence during legal proceedings, fall within the scope of the statute because they do not provide the public with access to maintained electronic information and are stored by the federal courts in their CM/ECF filing system.

In 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) again sided with the plaintiffs and upheld the lower court’s decision.

It appears that now, two years later and six years after the case began, the federal judiciary has finally agreed to settle the case and reimbursement of PACER fees for many users. It has raised a fund of $125 million and will refund up to $350 in fees paid for PACER between April 2010 and May 2018, and if there are any remaining funds, they will be split between those who paid more than $350 dollars during this period. Hopefully, this should reimburse more casual users. This won’t be much of a relief for really heavy PACER users, but it’s still a big step in the right direction.

Of course, the court system still charges the same basic PACER fees. At least for now. Congress toyed with making PACER free to the public (which it should be, since these are public documents). Also, earlier this year, the Judiciary also announced that… at some unknown point in the future… it will stop charging for searches (for some users, if they ever launch a new PACER).

The real solution, of course, is for Congress to step in and do the right thing: make PACER free for public use.

In the meantime, I’ll probably take the $350 I’m owed for my use of PACER and… spend it on FOIA requests, which should also be free…

Filed Under: court documents , courts , federal judiciary , overstatement , pacer

US Federal Courts Agree To Refund Fees They Overcharged People For Access To PACER

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