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Senate Judiciary Committee chairman urges PACER to restore access to removed case archives

If you want digital access to U.S. court documents, PACER will likely be your first stop. It's a sort of digital warehouse for public court records maintained by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, or the AO.

The service charges 10 cents per page of search results within its databases and 10 cents per actual page of public court records. Public domain and freedom of information advocates have long criticized the charges, along with the system's difficult-to-navigate interface, and have tried to create free alternative archives.

But on Aug. 10, PACER unceremoniously announced that archives for five courts -- four of them federal courts of appeals -- would no longer be available through the system.

The AO offered no explanation of the change until weeks later, when facing press inquiries about the removal of access. On Aug. 26, a spokesperson for the office said the removals were due to technical differences between the archives maintained by local courts and a new electronic case file system being adopted by the judiciary. Currently, PACER works as sort of a distributed network of different archives, the spokesperson said. The changes would allow for a single sign-on, among other improvements, the spokesperson said, but the locally developed systems of some courts were not compatible with the new system.

Now Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has weighed in on the situation and is urging the the judiciary to restore online access to the archives. "Wholesale removal of thousands of cases from PACER, particularly from four of our federal courts of appeals, will severely limit access to information not only for legal practitioners, but also for legal scholars, historians, journalists, and private litigants for whom PACER has become the go-to source for most court filings," Leahy wrote in a letter sent Friday to U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, the director of the AO. The letter was obtained by The Washington Post.

"Given the potential impact of the AO's recent decision, I urge that the AO take immediate steps to restore access to these documents," Leahy said. The chairman also expressed concern that the announcement of the removals was made "without any warning to the public, and without prior notification or consultation with Congress."