PACER, the U.S. Courts’ internet portal for reading and printing federal court filings, still, somehow, charges $0.10 per page just to read a filing online. It also charges $0.10 per page of search results, so you better hope there’s no “Smith” or “Jones” in the caption of the case you’re looking for!
The courts are quick to point out that they’re allowed to collect these fees by law and that they’ve taken certain steps in the last few years to reduce the burden, like capping the charge of any single document at $3.00. But just as you’re reading this post for free, you should be able to read public filings for free – they’re public after all! (Now it is much too easy these days for federal courts to seal of case filings, but that’s a fight for another day.)
So how would we pay for free PACER? Let’s assume that it costs about $15-$20 million per year to run PACER, and let’s also assume that the U.S. Courts are making more than $140 million per year in fees. Here are some ideas:
- Appropriate the money without raising taxes or fees. The budget deficit is nearing a trillion dollars, so no one’s going to notice an extra 0.000015% increase, which is what it cost to fund the back end.
- Fund it via escrow. If you take the $140 million that PACER makes per year and place two-thirds of it in escrow for the next three years, you’d have enough money to run the program for the next decade, by which time the courts should be able to figure out how to run a document delivery program that costs way less than $15-$20 million per year.
- Raise filing fees. Our sources tell us that the back-of-the-envelope calculations go like this: if you raise all non-indigent filing fees by seven percent, you could take in enough cash to run free PACER each year.
- Create a graduated fee structure. With this fix, you’d maintain some fees for white shoe law firms and the like but allow the rest of us to download court filings for free.
Have an idea on how to run free PACER? Let us know at Info@FixTheCourt.com.