Court Records Should be Free, and the U.S. House Agrees
First-ever floor action on a bill to eliminate the PACER paywall
Fix the Court is pleased to announce the passage of H.R. 8235, the Open Courts Act, in the House this afternoon by a voice vote. Though several bills to modernize the federal courts’ case management system and make access to filings free have been introduced in the last few congressional sessions, this is the first time such a bill has been voted on in either house of Congress.
“Today is a momentous day for court transparency and accountability. Access to court filings shouldn’t require a fat bank account, and it’s heartening to know that so many elected officials are with us on this,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said. “I want to thank Reps. Johnson and Collins and their staffs for drafting the bill, revising it to assuage stakeholder concerns and for seeing it through to the floor this afternoon.”
The OCA requires that by Jan. 1, 2026, the currently diffuse system of federal court records be consolidated into a single high-performance system that is searchable and accessible to those with special needs. Access to dockets and filings and would be free to all and no longer behind a dime-per-page paywall.
To create the new system, which would be rolled out like a software update in several phases every few weeks or months, entities that access PACER the most, called “power users,” would pay certain usage fees to the judiciary as determined by the Judicial Conference. If for whatever reason those fees do not cover the cost to build a new system – estimated by leading technologists and the CBO to be a few million per year – the judiciary could raise filing fees (only a small amount and only in rare instances) or request additional appropriations from Congress. To fund the operation of the new system into the future, federal agencies would each year pay a fee to the judiciary year equal to the amount of their 2018 PACER bill plus inflation.
The version of the OCA that passed this evening was different in several respects from the one that was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 15, with today’s text including several provisions that resulted from weeks of negotiations between Committee staff and the AO. For example, the enactment date was pushed from three years to five years; the definition of “power user” was dropped from $25,000 in PACER fees per quarter to $6,000 in fees per quarter; and the director of the AO was given the authority to “modify the scope and scale” of the new system should there be a budgetary shortfall.
For their part, House members added a 60-day public comment period for any fees the Judicial Conference sought to levy related to implementation; insured that such fees would “not impair access to justice […] nor inhibit not for profit research of the business of the federal courts”; and included a GAO review of the costs to build the new system and “the accuracy” of any implementation issues that the AO director may raise.
Earlier today, sources told FTC that despite these reasonable changes, which came at the behest of the AO, the AO again urged members of Congress to oppose the bill.
“After weeks of negotiations between the bills’ drafters and the Administrative Office, the drafters made several serious, good faith concessions in the revised text. Yet the AO countered by sticking to their opposition and reiterating debunked talking points on cost and implementation,” Roth added. “Passing this bill would be in the judiciary’s own interest, since it’d lower IT costs and improve public faith in the work of the third branch. But they can’t seem to quit their PACER slush fund.”
Elsewhere in D.C., a federal court case over whether PACER’s funding scheme as it currently exists is lawful remains ongoing. This past summer, a federal appeals court found that the judiciary had improperly used PACER fees to buy flat-screen TVs for jurors, to send bankruptcy notices and to conduct a study for the state of Mississippi on its own court system.
Congressional sources tell FTC that several senators were paying close attention to today’s vote and may introduce a companion bill as soon as later this week.