One Senate and two House bills are in the spotlight after panel says it lacks power to scrap fees
Congress should pick up where the courts left off and advance legislation to eliminate PACER fees entirely. That’s the message of a letter sent by Fix the Court and 15 other media and pro-transparency groups today to the members of the House and Senate who’ve co-sponsored bills this session to make access to federal court documents free.
This call is being renewed in light of the Aug. 6 ruling by the Federal Circuit, in which a three-judge panel found PACER fees to be impermissibly exorbitant but not altogether illegal.
“Only congressional action will end PACER’s unjust fee structure,” the groups wrote to the four senators and 11 representatives, “so we urge you to advocate for a swift post-recess markup and passage of H.R. 1164, H.R. 6017 and/or S. 2064, each of which would make PACER free and improve its functionality – and that of its case management and electronic case filing system – by making court documents searchable, downloadable, machine-readable and more accessible once and for all.”
Read the letter here.
The letter continues by noting that of the bills, H.R. 6017, includes a comprehensive and thoughtful way to pay for the creation of free PACER. “Startup costs could be recovered by continuing to charge some ‘power users’ per-page fees in the short term, and in the medium to long term, costs to maintain Free PACER could be recovered via moderate increases in filing fees based on complexity or type of action.”
“We often hear from members of Congress and their staffs that the practice of charging the public unjustifiable fees to access court documents needs to end,” FTC’s Gabe Roth said. “When Congress returns next month, there will be an opportunity to address this indignity.”
“These bills offer an opportunity to display comity and good judgment – something both parties try to project this time of year – so now’s the time to move these bills forward, either as standalones or part of the expected CR,” Roth added.
PACER fees raise more than $140 million annually for the U.S. Courts, while some estimates have put the expected cost to store that and retrieve that data at just over $225,000. Advocates and amici point out that even as the cost to store data has decreased 99.9% in the last two decades the judiciary has chosen to increase PACER fees from $0.07 to $0.10 a page.
The three bills that would make PACER free are: H.R. 1164 (Collins, H. Johnson, Quigley, Roe, Higgins, Cline, Stanton, Cole, Raskin, Foster); H.R. 6017 (Nadler, H. Johnson, Quigley); and S. 2064 (Cruz, Hirono, Portman, Wyden). All three bills would require the judiciary to build a new case management and electronic case filing system to permit searches across all courts and would require documents filed therein to be text-searchable and machine-readable.
The signatories to today’s letter are the American Society of Magazine Editors, Campaign for Accountability, Fix the Court, Free Law Project, Government Accountability Project, Government Information Watch, National Press Foundation, National Press Photographers Association, National Security Counselors, Open the Government, Project on Government Oversight, R Street Institute, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Tully Center at Syracuse University.