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House Passes Bill to Make PACER Free as Judiciary Opposes (1)

Dec. 8, 2020, 9:15 PMUpdated: Dec. 8, 2020, 10:58 PM

The federal judiciary remains opposed to legislation passed by the House Tuesday that would make U.S. court documents free to the general public.

Last minute tweaks that would provide more time for implementation weren’t enough to win support from the federal judiciary for the bill (H.R. 8235) that is designed to free access to PACER, the online database for U.S. court records.

“The bill as drafted will have devastating budgetary and operational impact on the Judiciary and our ability to serve the public,” Administrative Office of the Courts Director James Duff wrote in a letter Monday to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Duff said “very serous concerns remain” regarding the new version.

The House passed the bill by voice vote under suspension of the rules, which limits amendments and requires a two-thirds majority.

Supporters of the legislation led by sponsor Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) say the legislation will make the federal courts more accessible and open.

“Technology has become essential to preserving our first amendment rights by helping ensure meaningful access to justice and to court records,” Johnson said in floor remarks before the floor vote. “It’s past time that we bring our federal court record system into the 21st century.”

Gabe Roth, executive director of judicial watchdog Fix the Court who supports the bill, said he was disappointed to see the judiciary continue to oppose the bill after so many concessions were made in the new version.

“This reads as the authors bending over backwards to write statutory text that assuages the AO’s concerns, even though many of those concerns are unfounded, while ensuring at the same time that access to justice is a priority,” Roth said.

Changes Made

The legislation would require the federal judiciary to create a new PACER system that would be free for public use. The system currently requires fees of 10 cents per search, 10 cents per page, and a cap of $3 on documents. The first $30 of usage is waived.

While the effect of the new bill is materially the same as its predecessor, some of the changes would make implementation easier on the judiciary. The new bill extends the amount of time that the judiciary would have to implement it from two years to as long as five years.

It would also change the fee structure for large-scale users, known as “power users.” Under old bill, those fees could be applied to users that accrued $25,000 or more in fees and the new graduated schedule decreases that to $6,000.

The revised bill also includes some measures for review of the system, including requiring Government Accountability Office reports and public comment for new fee schedules.

Read more: BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 8235, Free Online Court Documents (1)

(Updates to reflect House passage.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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