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Online court archive PACER says it will restore access to missing records

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The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (or AO) has a plan to restore online access to documents that were controversially removed in August from PACER, the online system for accessing public court records, a spokesperson said.

"The Administrative Office is working to restore electronic access to these cases by converting the docket sheets in these cases to PDF format which will allow us to make them available in PACER," said David Sellers, assistant director for public affairs at the AO, in a statement to the Washington Post. "This process will be completed in the four appellate courts by the end of October.  We are also working to provide a similar solution for the dockets on the legacy system in the California Central bankruptcy court."

PACER is a digital warehouse for U.S. court documents in the public domain. The system is managed by the AO and funded through a fee structure that includes charging 10 cents per page of search results within the systems and 10 cents per actual page of public court documents.  Public domain advocates have long criticized those fees and argued that the system is difficult to navigate for the average citizen. These concerns led to the development of tools to help create a free archives of court documents, but those archives currently contain only a fraction of the information available through PACER.

However, on Aug. 10, access to some archives of five courts, including four U.S. federal appellate courts, were removed with little public notice:

Weeks later after being pressed by the media, the AO released an explanation: The way that those courts had set up their electronic case files were not compatible with a new system being rolled out by the judiciary, the agency said. The new system, dubbed "NextGen," would include benefits for users, AO said, including a unified login process that will further integrate PACER with the system used to make electronic court filings. "In addition, a new user interface also is planned, and further improvements are being made in searchability of data," Sellers told the Post.

While PACER allows broad access to court documents, it's more of an interconnected networks of archives hosted by local courts rather than a universal database. Individual courts have a lot of control over how they run their specific systems, and the courts whose data was removed in August had not prioritized updating their closed case archives to stay compatible with the current electronic case file management system, according to the AO.

"In the early 2000s, all other courts converted their legacy case information through an automated process," said Sellers. "These five courts balanced technical requirements with resources available at the time and decided not to convert." He also noted that none of the documents that were removed from the PACER system was destroyed, and says the vast majority of the records consist of docket sheets rather than actual court documents.

Still, open data and public domain advocates reacted in shock to the removal -- and online public domain database the Internet Archive offered to host the documents for free. Members of Congress, too, raised concerns. Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sent a letter to the AO pushing for the restoration of the documents, and raising concerns that Congress was not informed or consulted in the change.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) also expressed concern about the removal of access to court archives in an interview with the Post -- and criticized the current fee structure of the system. "I do think it's a little archaic the way it's being done," she said. "The idea that it's 10 cents a page is astonishing in this day and age, and there are way better alternatives than what they're doing."

Lofgren organized a bipartisan letter signed by fellow Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), and Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) Sent Thursday, the letter asked for the restoration of case documents and urged the AO to request public comment on the for the current upgrade to the Next Gen system and commit to doing the same when other changes are considered in the future.

A second Senate letter from a group of Republicans led by Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and signed by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) was also sent to the AO Thursday, urging for the restoration of the case archives -- and requesting a round of public comments on the PACER system as a whole.

"This would offer all members of the public an opportunity to express their views on PACER, the recent NextGen upgrades and, more importantly, what they would like to see from PACER as a the system continues to evolve," the letter read.