from the pretty-much-giving-it-away-by-giving-it-away dept

For years, attempts have been made to make access to federal court records free. To date, not one of these efforts have been successful. The federal judiciary likes its antiquated cash cow, raking in PACER fees meant to improve and free up (as in “free”) document access and redistributing the profit amongst itself, (illegally) blowing the funds on big screen TVs and furniture for those working at or with access to federal courthouses.

While PACER limps on in its pre-Web 1.0 state, millions of Americans are either unable or unwilling to pay librarian rates for the (lol) reproduction of PDFs at the absurd rate of $0.10/page. This page fee applies to searches (whether or not they’re successful) and docket listings, the latter of which only displays pixels on a screen.

Lawsuits and legislation have, so far, failed to give Americans free access to documents they’ve already paid for once with their tax dollars. The federal judiciary has been the main roadblock to free access, claiming (without facts in evidence) that this paywall is a necessary evil — the only thing keeping the US judiciary system from being repo’ed by… well, that’s not entirely clear.

The judiciary’s last major pushback came in late 2020. As bills made their way through Congress threatening free PACER use, federal judiciary officials made the ridiculous claim that free access would result in a multi-billion dollar loss. The judiciary claimed (again, without evidence) that it would cost $2 billion over five years if PACER access (for all but the most heavy users) was free. Then it asked for $7.65 billion to cover costs in 2021, despite giving no legitimate reason for this cash injection.

Either way, the federal judiciary should have been a few billion in the black every year for the next half-decade, even if PACER access was made free. Legislators unwilling to give the judiciary more money to grant the same amount of access pushed back. According to researchers working with legislators, the supposed $2 billion cost was actually far, far less: ~$2 million/year.

A bill that sailed through the House following this hilarious display of bad faith by the US court system quoted the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which generated an estimate even lower than the $2 million/year originally stated by legislators.

On net, CBO estimates that enacting H.R 8235 would increase the deficit by $9 million over the 2021-2030 period.

A net loss of less than $1 million per year. So much for the billions claimed by the federal judiciary system.

And that finding has been sustained. More than sustained, actually. It’s been improved. It actually may make the government money to give free use to most PACER users while charging fees only to its heaviest users (mostly US corporations).

Making the federal judiciary’s online court records system known as PACER free under a pending bill in the U.S. Senate would not add to the federal deficit as initially presumed, but would actually cut it by $14 million over a decade, according to revised estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

Enacting the Open Courts Act would generate $175 million in net revenues over a decade, offsetting the $161 million in mandatory spending the bill would prompt, according to new estimates by the CBO, Congress’ nonpartisan fiscal referee, released Wednesday by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a bill sponsor.

From ~$400 million/year (US Court system estimate) to $2 million/year (2020 CBO estimate) to an actual cut in federal spending. It would seem the judiciary system should probably stop arguing against free PACER access before it makes any more profit. There’s looking a gift horse in the mouth, and there’s the federal judiciary, which not only looks a gift horse in the mouth, but insists the gift horse is too much of a burden on taxpayers to be accepted with a clear conscience before asking taxpayers to pay the return freight on the overpriced, underperforming gift horse.

But you can be sure the federal judiciary will continue to protest any changes to its horrible, overly expensive, barely functional webshittery it pretends would be worth $0.10/page even if it had any competition.

As Joe Patrice notes for his article on these findings for Above the Law, the system that’s supposed to serve the public always seems far more interested in serving itself. And if that means charging for things no one in the private sector charges for these days, so be it.

Hosting a document database in 2001 was a costly endeavor. Today, Google gives you that kind of storage for opening a Gmail account. The idea that it cost the court massive amounts of money to maintain PACER was either a lie or a symptom of the courts trying to keep an antiquated system afloat rather than transitioning to a modern approach. Or a bit of both. Or a bit of both and a vested interest in a slush fund.

The judiciary system will push back. That much is assured. But what’s more than painfully obvious at this point is that it’s just making stuff up. PACER should be free. And, according to these numbers, it would cost the government money to keep charging every user access fees.

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