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November 2008

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


PACER Coming Into Its Own at 20

Twenty, in many cultures, marks a young person’s coming of age. In 2008, the Electronic Public Access (EPA) Program celebrates its own coming of age after two decades of expansion and service.

Back in September 1988, the Judicial Conference authorized “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.”A dozen courts signed up for the pilot Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system.

It began as an electronic bulletin board system with dial-in modems. The U.S. Party/Case Index was added in 1997, allowing national searches through an index for district, bankruptcy, and appellate court cases. In 1998, PACER began moving to a web environment, so anyone with Internet access could view court cases.

From a dozen participating courts, PACER has grown to include all bankruptcy, district, and appellate courts. From 9,000 registered user accounts in 1994, PACER grew to 900,000 registered accounts by 2008. This fiscal year alone, PACER added 134,000 new users.

The court of Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard in the Eastern District of North Carolina was one of the pilot PACER courts and he became a guiding member of the Electronic Public Access Working Group. “When I came on the bench in the early 1990s, we were overwhelmed with a spiraling caseload,” Leonard said. “We had to use technology to work more efficiently. PACER does that.”

One of PACER’s immediate effects, according to Leonard, was the disappearance of lines of stringers hired by companies to come to the court and write out filings by hand. PACER leveled the playing field, giving large and small, rural and urban law firms the same electronic access to court files. And it’s not just proximity, it’s reliability.

“Today, high PACER use is actually a tribute to our system,” Leonard said. The reason? “Even though we give attorneys a free copy of the documents in their cases, we found they prefer to rely on the integrity of our files, rather than download and create their own files to work from. They continue to access PACER to look at our docket sheet because the most recent and most accurate information is there.”

One of the most far-reaching changes for PACER came in 1991, when Congress passed legislation requiring the Judiciary to set a schedule of “reasonable fees” with all collected fees “to be deposited as offsetting collections to the Judiciary Automation Fund.” PACER became the only such self-funded program of its kind in the federal government. In 1997, Congress passed legislation that allowed the Judiciary to

use those fees to enhance availability of electronic information.

“We knew that unless we built on a sustainable financing basis, we’d never be able to keep PACER alive,” said Leonard. “What PACER receives in fees is plowed back into the system and into other public access initiatives. And we’ve kept fees reasonable. Since PACER moved to the Internet, fees haven’t really fluctuated farfrom 7 cents a page. [They are now at 8 cents per page.] And that’s still less expensive than what it costs to copy files at the court.”

“The fees,” agrees Mary Stickney, “allowed the Judiciary to build a national PACER program.” Stickney was chief of the Administrative Office’s EPA program from 1997 to 2008. In turn, PACER fees allowed the growth of programs and sites that increased public access to the courts, such as the Bankruptcy Noticing Center, the Victims Notification System, the Case Management/

Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, the Judiciary’s public Website, and the advancement of courtroom technology.

“User groups around the country give PACER raves,” said Leonard. “When they ask for more, we try to be responsive. Users asked why they should pay for a 100-page document when they only want to read two pages, so we placed a cap on fees. Users never pay more than $2.40 for a download of a single document. If your annual charges for pages viewed are less than $10, there’s no charge. That’s over 100 pages free. And if you need access and can’t pay, policy permits indigent user exemptions.”

Ted Willmann has run the PACER customer service center in San Antonio, Texas since the beginning. [See sidebar on page 3]. This fiscal year, the center responded to approximately 135,000 calls and 30,000 customer e-mails.

“We’re adding 2,000 to 3,000 registered accounts a week,” said Willmann. “The biggest jump in PACER growth was when we went from dial-up to the Web-based system. You practically needed to be a computer expert to do dial-up. Web is very intuitive. If you can surf the Internet, you can use PACER. That’s when the explosive growth started.”

In 2004, the Judicial Conference determined that electronic transcripts of proceedings should be available on the Internet when courts make other electronic documents available. “That closed the loop,” said Stickney. “Now the entire case record is on PACER.”

The latest enhancement to the PACER system is the availability of digital audio recordings of court proceedings. Five pilot courts make some digital audio recordings available through the CM/ECF system, accessible through PACER. Not surprisingly, Leonard’s court is leading the pilot program.

“It’s the next level of transparency,” he said. “And its potential is in opening up the judicial process to the public. I thought it was interesting that one local paper is picking up hearings and loading them to its Website. I know attorneys who load them to their MP3 players. This could be the antidote to mainstream media’s declining coverage of the courts.”

“The digital audio project is a key part of the future,” agreed Michel Ishakian, the AO’s new EPA chief. “And we are focusing on what needs to be done to ensure success on a national scale, including identifying best practices and ironing out any technical problems. We have to make sure we have the necessary policies and infrastructure in place, along with internal controls.”

The program’s future, according to Ishakian, really belongs to the public. This will be determined through an assessment of the program’s services, an initiative endorsed by the EPA working group, due to kick off in early 2009. The assessment will include focus groups and survey the courts, litigants, attorneys, the media, and bulk data collectors—the people who use PACER.

For Leonard, who watched PACER’s first toddling steps, these are rewarding days. “I’ve been involved with the federal courts for 30 years, and I’m proudest of this program,” he said. “I don’t know of another national or state system that offers the access that PACER does.”

For more on PACER, including how to register to use the service, visit our Website at http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov/.