Senate panel advances bill making federal judiciary’s e-record system free

The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza on Tuesday, November 16, 2021.
Greg Nash

A Senate panel on Thursday advanced a bipartisan bill that seeks to make the federal judiciary e-record system free.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Open Courts Act of 2021 by voice vote, sending it to the full Senate for consideration. It is commonly known as the “Free PACER” bill, referring to the federal judiciary’s electronic court record system.

PACER stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records.

The bill seeks to eliminate the paywall on PACER and make access to documents free. Users are currently required to pay $0.10 per page accessed with a $3 maximum on documents, with transcripts not included.

Non-government agency users who spend $25,000 or more on PACER per year, however, would still be charged a fee for accessing documents. Federal agencies would still be subject to fees, according to Reuters.

If the legislation is passed and enacted, fees and Congressional appropriations would finance the operational costs of PACER, Reuters reported.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement that the public pays more than $140 million per year to access court records on PACER.

“Presently, litigants in federal court and members of the public have to pay to get access to public federal court records, like filings and briefs, through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, system. Big law firms have no problem, but these fees may be too expensive for individuals, small businesses, small law firms, and non-profits to track litigation that impacts them,” Durbin said in a statement. 

“And for some low-income individuals, the cost of accessing records can be so high that it may prevent them from going forward with a meritorious lawsuit,” he added.

The majority whip said the judiciary’s system “is not keeping pace with reality or technology,” adding “I believe this bill improves access to justice by eliminating the PACER paywall.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee also adopted an amendment that allocated more funding and spoke to concerns among the judiciary regarding technical matters, according to Reuters.

A similar bill has been introduced in the House, Reuters noted, but the lower chamber’s Judiciary Committee has not yet taken up the measure.

The Administrative Office for the U.S. Courts, which is the administrative agency for the agency, said that while the judiciary is “concerned” about funding available to lift the paywall from PACER, it is devoted to updating the system, according to the news wire.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sponsored the bill, and Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Durbin are listed as co-sponsors.

Tags Dick Durbin Josh Hawley Rob Portman Ron Wyden

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