Momentum Builds for PACER Reform and Free Public Access to Court Records

On February 13, 2019, Rep. Collins (R-GA) introduced the Electronic Court Records Reform Act (H.R. 1164) to enable free public access to federal court records in machine-readable form via PACER.

The bill is short and sweet (text available here), enjoys bipartisan support from co-sponsors Rep. Quigley (D-IL), Rep. Roe (R-TN) and Rep. Johnson (D-GA) and has earned the praise of the AALL, ACLU, ALA, ARL and many other organizations committed to public access to government information.

In summary, the bill would require the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to:

  • Consolidate all of the federal court filings and record systems into a single system;
  • Make all federal court filings publicly available online at no charge (with exceptions for redactions and filings under seal);
  • Make all federal court filings available in machine-readable, searchable, linkable form;
  • Offer states the opportunity to participate in the system at a fee set to recover the cost of the services provided to each state.

All of these are important provisions that, if enacted, will improve access to legal information and enhance the transparency of our court system.

The bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, which last year considered and reported out other measures designed to enhance public access to federal court records. Jonathan Zittrain, Jocelyn Kennedy and I recently submitted a letter to the Committee expressing support for the bill.

The bill also comes in the midst of a legal challenge to PACER’s current fee structure filed by several non-profit organizations. The case, NVLSP v. United States, is now pending on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and numerous prominent groups have filed supporting amicus briefs.

Many people have been working tirelessly on this issue for years, and much work remains before this bill becomes law. But the momentum for PACER reform is building.


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