The New York Times by Editorial Board
February 7, 2019
One bright spot of the Trump era is a greater public understanding of the rule of law and the institutions and individuals who sustain it.
But concerned citizens who wish to keep up with court cases — not to mention journalists covering them — face a barrier: the byzantine and overly expensive Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, more commonly known as Pacer.
Pacer, a 30-year-old relic that remains unwieldy to use, is a collection of online portals run by the administrative arm of the federal court system. It was designed, at least in principle, to provide online access to the more than one billion court documents that have been docketed in federal courts across the country since the advent of electronic case filing.
But the public can gain access to these public documents online only by paying significant fees. Pacer charges 10 cents per page to view electronic court documents — or up to $3 for documents exceeding 30 pages, which are common. It’s easy to burn up $10 just by looking up rudimentary information about a single case.
This can translate to significant costs for news outlets. The Times’s newsroom has in recent years paid tens of thousands of dollars in feesfor access to federal court documents. Such costs can be a burden on smaller newsrooms, many of which have struggled financially in recent years.
As Adam Liptak, the longtime Supreme Court correspondent for The Times, noted this week, Pacer’s fee structure is “preposterous.”