Changes to Access to U.S. Federal Court Records on PACER

Changes intended to enhance public access to U.S. federal court records through the PACER system were announced 16 March 2010 by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

PACER is the fee-based legal information service of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC) Public Access and Records Management Division.

According to the announcement, the Judicial Conference has approved the following measures:

  • U.S. federal judges will be permitted “to make digital audio recordings of court hearings available online to the public through PACER, for $2.40 per audio file”;
  • PACER users will not be charged for PACER usage “unless they accrue charges of more than $10 of PACER usage in a quarterly billing cycle”;
  • A pilot program has been approved, under which a maximum of 12 U.S. federal courts may “publish … district and bankruptcy court opinions” free of charge “via the [U.S.] Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys).”

The GPO FDsys pilot program seems consistent with the goals of the legal open government data project.

The announcement appears to contain one partially inaccurate statement: “All court opinions are available through PACER free of charge, and that will not change.” This statement appears to be inaccurate in two respects, as I verified by PACER searches performed this week. First, many U.S. federal district court opinions placed in PACER prior to the installation of “District Court CM/ECF version 2.4” — which appears to have occurred in most courts in 2005 or 2006 — are available to the public only for a fee (click here for the PACER document stating this policy; and see as an example the district court opinion in Parker v. District of Columbia, Civil Action No. 03-0213 (EGS) (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 2004), document number 35 on the docket numbered 1:03-cv-00213-EGS available via the D.D.C. PACER site).

Second, public users are charged a fee to access U.S. federal circuit court opinions through U.S. federal district court dockets accessible via U.S. federal circuit court PACER sites, and through federal district court PACER sites. See, e.g., the Eighth Circuit opinion in Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz, P.A. v. United States, No. 07-2405 (8th Cir. Sept. 4, 2008), available through the Eighth Circuit PACER site and the D. Minn. PACER site as document 56 on the docket numbered 0:05-cv-02626-JMR-FLN .

Employees of the AOUSC are currently reviewing the accuracy of the statement, “All court opinions are available through PACER free of charge, and that will not change.” I hope they will soon issue a correction to that statement. I am grateful to several AOUSC and PACER Service Center employees, and to Stephen Schultze of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy for their assistance this week respecting this issue.

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