Court Battles

Appeals court rules that judiciary misspent funds from court records fees

A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that the federal judiciary has been misusing the fees it charges the public for access to court records.

A three-judge panel on the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision that ruled the Administrative Office of the United States Courts had improperly spent money from access fees on programs that had nothing to do with maintaining the public's ability to access court documents.

Judge Todd Hughes wrote in a decision for the panel that the law requires courts to limit the fees charged to access records to "the amount needed to cover expenses incurred in services providing public access to federal court electronic docketing information."

The case concerns a lawsuit brought by legal groups challenging the court system's Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) program, which charges the public 10 cents for every page of a document they access, though documents exceeding 30 pages are capped at $3.

Critics argue that the fees are excessively high.

"We're thrilled that the Federal Circuit recognized that the federal judiciary's PACER system has been charging people more than the law allows for access to court records," said Deepak Gupta, an attorney representing the organizations that filed the lawsuit. "The judiciary's antiquated paywall inhibits ordinary people's access to the courts, prevents journalists from covering what the courts are up to, and makes important academic research difficult or impossible. The next step should be to make access completely free."

A district judge ruled in 2018 that the court system had unlawfully used PACER fees on a study regarding electronic access to Mississippi state court documents, a program sharing information with local law enforcement on violent offenders and the costs of an electronic juror-management system.

The circuit court upheld those findings, but rejected the plaintiffs' efforts to expand the scope of the decision.

"As to those amici urging the elimination of all fees for accessing electronically available court records, we agree with the government that those calls are better directed to Congress," Hughes wrote in Thursday's ruling.

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