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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.


The PACER Service Center: The Backstory

In the early 1990s a centralized registration, billing, and technical support center for electronic access to U.S. district, bankruptcy, and appellate court records was just a gleam in Chuck Vagner’s eye. At the time Vagner was clerk of court for the Western District of Texas.

“Congress had just given its OK for the Judiciary to charge fees to access automated court records,” recalls Vagner. “And the Electronic Public Access pilot program was up and growth was anticipated. I was asked by the AO to look at how to provide support, billing, and register users, for the program. I called my very competent staff together, shut the door, and brainstormed. In the end, we suggested a national PACER service center. We thought attorneys should be able to go to one place and use one ID. Service and billing also would be centralized.”

To develop the service center, Vagner and his staff made use of some of the software programs underpinning the Central Violations Bureau (CVB), where tickets issued for violations on federal property are sent for processing. They then developed a whole lot more.

“We got the go-ahead to try it in our own bankruptcy court,” said Vagner. “When that succeeded, we expanded to 5 or 6 more bankruptcy courts, and it did extraordinarily well. Then we expanded to the district courts. Courts signed on as we became more and more successful.”

With the center growing fast, Vagner posted a job opening for someone to manage the customer service representatives and system administrators; Ted Willmann applied. He’s been with the PACER Service Center ever since—and he added the CVB to his responsibilities along the way. Today Willmann works with a staff of 20 at the PACER Service Center. They handle billing, receipts, and respond to phone calls for the nationwide system.

“It just proves,” said Vagner, “you can do anything with good staff and good ideas.”