PUBLIC INFORMATION -- The federal courts make serious money by keeping online public access to their case files a pay-to-play proposition, and don't want to give it up—despite freelance efforts to end their monopoly and a nudge from a senator to start complying with a 2002 act of Congress.


As reported by Timothy B. Lee recently for Ars Technica,

If you want to find out how the Obama administration is spending the stimulus money, you can go to recovery.gov for detailed spending data. Many executive branch agencies provide information about their activities via the government's regulations.gov portal. And the Library of Congress has the Thomas
system, which gives the public free, searchable access to information
about the activities of the legislative branch. But the judicial branch
is a conspicuous laggard when it comes to making public documents
available online. Theoretically, public access to federal court records
is provided by a Web-based system called PACER.
Unfortunately, PACER locks public documents behind a paywall, lacks a
reasonable search engine, and has an interface that's inscrutable to
non-lawyers.

The courts are coming under increasing pressure to address these flaws, and last year, RSS pioneer Aaron Swartz and open government activist Carl Malamud took matters into their own hands.
The courts had launched a pilot program that gave free PACER access to
patrons of selected libraries, so Swartz and Malamud went to the
libraries with thumb drives and used a Perl script to download as many
documents as they could. They got about 20 million documents before the
courts abruptly canceled the trial. The documents—about 700 GB in
total—are now available from Malamud's website, but there are still terabytes of public documents locked behind PACER's paywall.

On February 27, Sen Joe Lieberman (I-CT) (a consistent advocate of public access to taxpayer-funded documents) sent the courts a letter
asking some pointed questions about PACER. Noting that the 2002
E-Government Act had instructed the courts to move toward free public
access to court records, and that the judiciary had a $150 million
surplus in its Information Technology Fund, Lieberman asked the courts
to justify continuing to charge 8 cents a page for these documents.

On March 26, the courts responded to Lieberman's letter, arguing
that the fees it collects are necessary to cover the costs of running
the system. It also pointed to a number of steps that have been taken
in recent years to make PACER more accessible. As we'll discuss below,
some of the claims in the letter were disputed by the experts Ars
talked to, and the courts declined to answer our follow-up questions.

In this feature, Ars takes stock of online access to federal court
records in the United States. We'll discuss how the system got where it
is today, look at where there's room for improvement, and talk to two
experts on open government about the prospects for reform.