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September 2000

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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 support services.

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 secure network.

"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.