This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.
Electronic Public Access at 10
Originally, electronic public
access meant a simple phone line connection that let John or Joan Q. Public dial
in for case information from an electro-nic bulletin board. It was
barebones, but it saved a trip to the local
federal court. Ten years later, the phone line is still operating, but now it is
being used to surf to the courthouse door on the Internet, as attorneys and
the public visit court websites to file cases, view dockets, or check
court dates. Electronic public access has changed a lot in a decade, and the
future promises even more.
Pre1988, the electronic access experience in the federal courts
was practically nonexistent. "The only access to court records," said
Chief Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard (E.D.
N.C.), a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on
Court Administration and Case Management, "was to queue up at the
counter and mark the papers you wanted copied. Geographic proximity to
the courthouse was important, which meant that small town
practitioners away from the courts in the
cities were limited in their federal practice."
All that was about to change, because federal courts across
the country were beginning to use computers to manage basic
case information. Computers made public access to certain court
documents possible for the first time.
In September 1988, the Judicial Conference adopted a
recommendation from the former Committee on Judicial Improvements to
authorize "an experimental program of electronic access for the public to
court information in one or more district, bankruptcy, or appellate courts
in which the experiment can be conducted at nominal cost."
Approximately half a dozen courts participated.
The official birthday of the electronic public access
(EPA) program, however, came with P.L. 101515, the Judiciary
Appropriations Act of 1991, signed in November 1990. The Act gave
the Judiciary the authority to establish access fees and therefore
permitted nationwide expansion of the program since Congress had
appropriated no funds for its operation. Electronic public access started
in only a handful of courts, but good ideas catch on. In its report for
the fiscal year 1993 Appropriations Act, the House appropriations
committee noted, ". . . the Judiciary's
investments in automation have resulted in enhanced service to the public and
to other government agencies in making court records relating
to litigation available by electronic media. . . .The Committee
requests that the Judiciary equip all courts, as rapidly as is feasible, with
the capability for making such records available electronically and
for collecting fees for doing so. The Committee understands that
approximately a third of current access to court records is by
nonJudiciary, governmental agencies and believes that fees for access in these
instances are desirable."
In 1997, Congress permitted the Judiciary to use fees for
enhancements to electronic public access services. "This made EPA the
only selffunded program of its kind in the Judiciary," said Mary
Stickney, chief of the EPA program office at the Administrative Office.
"No appropriated funds are used. The fees made the subsequent
evolution of electronic public access
possible." Currently, the EPA program manages the development,
implementation, and enhancement of electronic public access systems in the
Judiciary, with centralized billing, registration, and technical
Electronic public access began with dialin modems and
electronic bulletin board systems but progressed rapidly to automated
voice response systems, then to the Public Access to Court Electronic
Records system or PACER. PACER provided access to court cases throughout
the country to anyone with a computer and a modem.
"Nationwide, all but nine courts participate in PACER,"
said Stickney, "and even those nine offer some form of electronic access
to court documents. Each year, PACER and other federal court
services receive over seven million calls."
In 1997, the Judiciary added the U.S. Party/Case Index, a
national index for U.S. district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts, with
the capability to perform national or regional searches. At first a
dialup service, it was soon available on the Internet.
"The biggest expansion of electronic public access has been to
the web," adds Stickney, "with PACER moving to a web environment
in 1998. We had approximately 9,000 PACER accounts in 1994. In
1999, there were 30,000. But this year, with the movement to the web, we
have over 67,000 registered users."
The very latest innovation is the Public Access Network, used
in conjunction with Web PACER. It is a way for courts to host web
sites without using outside providers, which makes for a more
"Electronic public access is the most dramatic improvement
we've made in the way we offer services to the public," Leonard said.
"It wasn't even conceivable 10 years ago. Yet today it has leveled
the playing field for law firms and made federal practice more
accessible. Immediate proximity to the courthouse and the ability to
obtain copies of large files is not so critical. A law firm 150 miles away from
the courthouse has the same access as a firm in the same city."
What do users want from electronic public access? Participants
in focus groups wanted to be able to perform nationwide searches
and access cases over the Internet. The EPA program consequently
delivered with the U.S. Party/Case Index and Web PACER. Users said
they'd like to view images of case documents, and thus icons have now
been added to the PACER page indicating which courts allow users on
the Internet to see images. "If the courts have imaging or electronic case
filing capability," said Stickney, "users
will be able to see actual documents in the case file."
Focus groups also have raised questions about privacy, and
the availability of data is also a concern. The Committee on Court
Administration and Case Management has formed a Privacy and Public
Access Subcommittee to review the policies of Case
Management/Electronic Case Filing prototype courts as
well as those courts using imaging technology and to identify
other policy issues.
The bottom line is that, 10 years from its inception, electronic
public access is better, faster and cheaper. PACER's 7¢ per page cost on
the Internet is less expensive than the 50¢ fee for copying in court.
Recent innovations such as U.S. Party/Case Index provide more information,
and now there is access to actual images of case documents. Courts can
even add local reports in the web environment. What's next? Focus
groups have said they'd like to receive automatic noticing when
companies file for bankruptcy and view video presentations on the use of
web products. These and other innovations may be just around the
corner for electronic public access in the federal courts.