Why PACER removed access to case archives of five courts

If you want to download court records in the United States, your first stop is probably PACER, the oft-maligned digital warehouse for public court records. Maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the system charges 10 cents per page of search results within its archive, and 10 cents per actual page of court documents that are officially in the public record. It's a useful tool for attorneys, but often difficult for the average citizen to navigate and understand.

Freedom of information advocates have long criticized PACER — and tried to create some public archives outside it. But at least, for the most part, digital copies of more recent court documents were available somewhere. However, on Aug. 10, the database unceremoniously announced the removal of access to certain case files — and not just a handful, but entire categories of documents coming from five courts.


Announcement of removal of court records from PACER. (PACER)

Charles Hall, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office, told The Post via e-mail that the change was made on Aug. 11 in preparation for an overhaul of the the PACER architecture, including the implementation of the next generation of the Judiciary's Case Management and Electronic Case Files System. "NextGen replaces the older CM/ECF system and provides improvements for users, including a single sign-on for PACER and NextGen," he wrote.

However, as a result of the changes the locally developed legacy case management systems of some courts were no longer compatible with PACER, he says. Since PACER works as a sort of distributed network of different archives rather than one centralized database, that's a major problem.

However, Hall says, the dockets and documents no longer available through the system could still be obtained directly from the relevant court and "all open cases, as well as any new filings, will continue to be available on PACER."

But that means it is much harder for the public to access historical records -- and the lack of forewarning left some legal and technical experts reeling. Brian Carver, an assistant professor at University of California at Berkeley School of Information, says he was frustrated and disappointed by the change. Carver is a co-founder of nonprofit group Free Law Project, which recently partnered with Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy to maintain the RECAP platform -- a crowd-sourced project which hosts free archives of documents others have obtained through the paid PACER system.

Using a browser extension, RECAP users can see when documents are already available for free in their archive which currently stands at roughly 3 million court documents -- and automatically upload documents that they pay for to that public archive.

Carver says their group would be happy to host the files publicly, and are reaching out the courts to see if that is possible. But he was still shocked by the lack of advance warning. "If we had known about it in advance maybe we could have done something to target these documents and archive them publicly," he says. "It was really an announcement of an accomplished feat -- we weren't told until after this deed was already done."

 

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Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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