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Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Make PACER Free (1)

Dec. 9, 2021, 5:02 PMUpdated: Dec. 9, 2021, 5:52 PM

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved bipartisan legislation Thursday designed to make U.S. court documents free to the general public.

Committee members of both parties asked to be included as cosponsors of the measure (S. 2614) that 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.

Committee members approved by voice vote a manager’s amendment with several changes, including authorizing appropriations for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in addition to relying on fees from frequent users and federal agencies which use its case management system. The federal judiciary had opposed a similar bill passed by the House last Congress, which it said would have a “devastating budgetary and operational” impact on the judiciary.

In a statement, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said Thursday, “finding sufficient, stable funding for this project while providing potentially unlimited PACER access to the public would not be a simple exercise. The Judiciary is particularly concerned that relying on increased filing fees, as provided in the bill voted out of the committee, could seriously impede the right of access to federal courts.”

Supporters of the legislation say it will make the federal courts more accessible and open.

“There’s no reason the American public should pay for public documents. The current cost to view or download a filing, ten cents per page, might not seem like a lot, but it quickly adds up and has been a barrier to access to justice for too long,” Gabe Roth, executive director of judicial watchdog Fix the Court who supports the bill, said in a statement. “The Open Courts Act fixes that, makes PACER free and modernizes the entire case management and filing system in a way that can make the judiciary’s IT a crown jewel and not an embarrassment.”

(Updates with statement from federal judiciary in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Seth Stern in Washington at sstern@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com