"What's black and white and read all over?"

Saturday, May 20, 2006
Posted 7:12 PM by

Want to see federal court papers? Be prepared to pay

When is an online court record not a public record?

When it's locked away in a Web site with which you have to register, give a credit card number and then pay 8-cents per page just to look at it.

Athough federal tax dollars paid to start the national Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, that's how much the public is charged to access the information it contains.

The courts also charges lawyers fees for filing their court briefs, motions and other memoranda electronically. So the judiciary is really using public records to make a profit at both ends.

All of the paperwork is scanned into pdf (portable document format) files and placed on the Internet, where it costs the courts nothing additionally to let copies of them be downloaded.

I found all this out today when I wanted to review the court paperwork in the Common Cause of Pennsylvania's lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, et. al.

Unbelievably, the Administrative Office of United States Courts has the gall to tout this advancement over 19th century record-keeping and 20th century copying charges as being inexpensive to system users.

"In 1853, the cost of a copy of a court document was set by Congress at 10 cents per page, a figure which, indexed for inflation, is now equivalent to almost $2," the AOUS says in a brochure about PACER. "To obtain a paper copy today, a person still must travel to the court and pay 50 cents per page. Technology and the work of court staff, funded by public access fees, have brought the courts closer to the citizens, allowing round-the-clock access to court information from anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost."

Excuse me?

If it cost 10 cents in 1853 to hand copy/carbon copy a page, why the heck should it cost 8 cents in 2006 to let people download one?

This in a court system that receives billions of dollars in federal funding annually and also charges lawyers to file the paperwork in the first place?

There are limits, however, to the federal courts' greed.

Users never pay more than $2.40 to download a document, regardless of its size, and no fee is owed until an account holder accrues charges of $10 or more in a calendar year. At 8-cents per page, that means you can download 125 pages before you get hit with a bill.

While that may seem like a lot, lawyers are verbose and court cases can take up millions of pages.

Meanwhile, the system doesn't allow you to just view the document before deciding if you want to download it. So, it's literally pay-per-view.

In 2003, the number of PACER's registered users exceeded 300,000, according to a report from the U.S. Supreme Court. You do the math.

Although the U.S. General Accounting Office briefly looked at the PACER system in 2003 to examine how close it was to meeting the E-government Act passed by Congress in 2002, the GAO did not study how much the system is really raking in from the public.

The crux of Common Cause's case against Pennsylvania's leaders is that they're abusing rules and trashing the state Constitution to hike their own salaries. Public tax dollars are also paying to defend the state's top leaders.

At the very least, the public should get to see the court paperwork its paying for without getting gouged yet again by the federal courts.


Common Cause of Pennsylvania could soon see its lawsuit against Pennsylvania's top officials over last year's legislative pay raise may be tossed from federal court. To read why, click here.
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