Survey: Will the PACER Fee Increase Change Your Research Habits?

Will the upcoming 25% fee increase for PACER documents change your research habits?

I wonder what other librarians and researchers are thinking about this increased cost.

If you have a moment, please take this one question poll and feel free to add comments to this post, too.

PACER Fees Increase

According a press release on the U.S. Courts website, PACER fees will be going 25% effective November 1st:  

“The Conference also authorized an increase in the Judiciary’s electronic public access fee in response to increasing costs for maintaining and enhancing the electronic public access system. The increase in the electronic public access (EPA) fee, from $.08 to $.10 per page, is needed to continue to support and improve the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, and to develop and implement the next generation of the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Filing system.”

The release continues to describe a few exemptions:

“The Conference was mindful of the impact such an increase could have on other public entities and on public users accessing the system to obtain information on a particular case.  For this reason, local, state, and federal government agencies will be exempted from the increase for three years. Moreover, PACER users who do not accrue charges of more than $15 in a quarterly billing cycle would not be charged a fee. (The current exemption is $10 per quarter.) The expanded exemption means that 75 to 80 percent of all users will still pay no fees.”

The expanded fee exemption (from $10 to $15 a quarter) offers additional help, but an exemption for academic institutions and law libraries, or at least GPO depository libraries, would serve the public good.

Might be a good time to teach your students and attorneys about using RECAP.

PACER Training Pilot Project Begins in July

PACER Training Pilot Project Begins in July
June 17, 2011

A pilot project aimed at having public libraries enhance the public’s knowledge and use of the federal judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service begins July 1, 2011.

Two libraries – the Library of Congress in the District of Columbia and the Law Library for San Bernadino, California – will kick off the pilot, but up to 50 additional public libraries may join them in future months.

PACER allows users to obtain case information from federal courts without having to visit the courthouse. The service allows an Internet user to request information about a particular case or party, and makes the data immediately available for printing or downloading at a cost of 8 cents per page.

In the pilot project, libraries will conduct at least one training class for the general public every three months, and offer training or refresher opportunities for library staff at least one a year. Those staff members, in turn, may assist library patrons in the use of PACER. For participating libraries, the first $50 of PACER use fees each quarter will be waived.

The pilot is a joint undertaking of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the Government Printing Office, and the American Association of Law Libraries.

Pondering PACER pricing

What Does It Cost to Provide Electronic Public Access to Court Records?

by Steve Schultze, Associate Director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton
US Courts have long faced a dilemma. Public access to proceedings is essential to a well-functioning democracy. On the other hand, providing public access requires expenditure of funds. Charging for access works against public access. Traditionally, these costs have been considered to be part of the general operating cost of courts, and there have been no additional fees for public access. The cost of the courthouse, the public gallery, and the bailiff are included. The administrative cost that the clerks incur in providing free public inspection of records is also covered, although the clerk may collect fees for filing actions or making physical copies.

I have been trying to understand how these practices have been translated into the networked digital era by exploring PACER, the US Courts’ system for “Public Access to Court Electronic Records.” Digital technologies have a way of pushing the cost of information dissemination toward zero, but as I observed in a recent working paper, this does not appear to be the trajectory of public access fees. Congress has provided a statutory limitation that states that the “Judicial Conference may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees… to reimburse expenses incurred in providing these services.” In short, you can only charge for public access services if those fees are used to, at most, cover the operating expenses for those same services. What’s more, in an accompanying conference report, Congress noted that it “…intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move… to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible.”

As described below, the Judiciary’s financial reports appear to tell a different story: In the past several years, the Judicial Conference has consistently expanded the scope of its expenditures of public access fees such that the vast majority is now spent on other services.

. . .

What we don’t know….RECAP/Pacer Survey

At the NOCALL Spring Institute in March, I demonstrated the RECAP plug-in.  After the presentation, one attendee stopped by and suggested that not enough librarians are using the plug-in because they just don’t know about it.  I must admit that the comment surprised me — so, I decided to do a quick survey.

With the blessing of the folks at RECAP (CITP at Princeton), I created a super simple survey trying to see  if we (librarians) know about RECAP and if we do, do we use it and teach about it.  I created a survey on Zoomerang and sent the link to the following e-mail lists: LAW-LIB, NOCALL, and All-SIS, and also spread the word on Twitter.

As of May 15th, here is what the we saw from the survey:

There were 261 completed surveys.  Law firm librarians represented 18% percent of the respondents; academic law librarians represented 70%, and state/county/federal librarians represented 6% of the replies.

Ninety percent of the respondents said that they use PACER.

However, 42.4% of the 257 folks who answered the question “Have you ever heard of RECAP?” said “no”.   The academic law librarians comprised nearly 78 percent of the “no” votes (and 63% of the “yes” votes).   Seventy-three percent of the 45 law firm librarians who responded to this question had heard of RECAP.

Seventy-two percent of the respondents said that they didn’t have RECAP installed on any computers in their library.  And, of that group, 12% don’t use the plug-in because they use IE or Chrome for their browser (plug-in not compatible with those browsers);  15% don’t have the plug-in installed because their employers don’t allow it; and the largest part, 58%, don’t have it installed because they are unfamiliar with the plug-in.

And, the last question asked if respondents provided training on RECAP or taught RECAP in advanced legal research courses.  Only 6% of the respondents said “yes” to this question.  Ninety-four percent are not providing any training or instruction on RECAP.  (Note: We have been showing our students how to use RECAP and we find that our clinic students are often most receptive to this type of training.)

I hope that after reading this survey, more librarians might want to learn more about RECAP and try to use it at work and with their patrons.  Given the new look and feel of the PACER website (launched this weekend), it is good to know that the RECAP plug-in still works just fine.  What a good time to install RECAP.

FJC Privacy Audit of PACER Documents

New from the Federal Judicial Center:

“A Memorandum to Honorable Reena Raggi, Chair, Privacy Protection Subcommittee [of the Judicial Conference Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedureregarding Social Security Numbers in Federal Court Documents,” by George Cort and Joe Cecil (Federal Judicial Center), April 5, 2010.

The summary states:

“The Center identified 2,899 documents with one or more unredacted Social Security numbers among the almost ten million documents filed in federal district and bankruptcy courts in a recent two-month period. Seventeen percent of these documents appeared to qualify for an exemption from the redaction requirement under the relevant privacy rules. An unknown number of the remaining documents may qualify for a waiver of the privacy protection under the rules, but we could not determine whether such a waiver applied to the documents identified in this study.”

More than One Document a Minute

The headline from the Internet Archive posting reads: “Millions of documents from over 350k federal court cases now freely available.”

The millions of documents are all from PACER by way of the RECAP plugin.

As the posting states:

RECAP is a Firefox Internet browser extension that allows users of the PACER to get free copies of documents they would normally pay for when the Archive has a copy, and if it is not available to then automatically donate the documents after they purchase them from PACER for future users. Therefore the repository on the Internet Archive grows as people use the PACER system with this plug-in. We are currently getting more than one document a minute and some large holdings are being uploaded. We hope that the government will eventually put all of these documents in an open archive, but until then this repository will grow with use.”

Wow.  Growing faster than one document a minute!  (Right now: stop what you are doing and check to see if you have the RECAP plugin installed on your machine — every little bit helps.)

To visit this collection and search the content, go to www.archive.org/details/usfederalcourts.  There you will be able to browse by date (the other browsing features aren’t operational).  You can also do an Advanced Search on the Internet Archive and keyword search through all the available materials by limiting to the Collection Type = usfederalcourts.   VERY COOL.

And, might I add: FREE!

I checked with the good folks who created RECAP at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, and they said that for now the RECAP/Internet Archive collection of PACER dockets (specifically: just the high-level case metadata) are indexed and can be searched by the likes of Google, but the underlying dockets, documents and briefs are still hidden from the search robots because of privacy concerns.

Public Means Online

Today’s Washington Post features an editorial supporting the new Public Online Information Act, H.R. 4858.

[Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY] “has introduced the Public Online Information Act (POIA), a sensible and modest bill that could nevertheless be a catalyst for important changes in how the federal government thinks about and handles public information. It could also lead to greater transparency in the workings of the government.”

As the folks at the Sunlight Foundation have noted: “public means online.”

However, the realities of getting the bill passed means that it does have its limits.  Most notably, “public information generated by Congress, including real-time lobbying registrations, is exempt from the mandatory provision, as are public filings within the judicial branch.”

But with Law.gov and other transparency efforts ongoing, we can be hopeful for even bigger changes down the road.

Yesterday, Carl Malamud gave a rousing talk to the NOCALL Spring Institute about Law.gov.

[By the way, NOCALL throws down an amazing Spring Institute every year -- this year was no exception!  Besides the terrific parties, they always pull in a great range of speakers and topics, from Ryan Calo (on Privacy Tools) to Mark Sirkin (on New Roles in the Law Firm of the Future).  Many attendees spoke highly of the forum on the Google Book Settlement, featuring Mary Minow, Gary Reback and Andrew Bridges.  On Saturday, I enjoyed demonstrating the awesome RECAP plug-in -- hopefully, more folks will be downloading PACER court documents to the archive. ]

Malamud’s inspirational Law.gov talk got the crowd buzzing.  NOCALL members are already involved in the prototype of a national law inventory for the Law.gov effort.  And, invigorating talks like this one should help spread the word and add more volunteers to the project.    As Malamud mentioned, the inventory will help provide key metrics for the Law.gov report (for example: how many municipalities assert copyright over their regulations).

While the California legal inventory is now underway, more work is needed [READ: please contact me if you would like to volunteer to help!].  And, other AALL chapters/working groups should be starting their legal inventory projects very shortly.

For those who are still curious about Law.gov and for those who are contemplating volunteering for their own state legal inventory project(s), I encourage you to view at least one of Malamud’s Law.gov talks online and/or read his “By the People” pamphlet.

Stay tuned…As “public means online’, Law.gov equals change.

On PACER – New Letter from Senator Lieberman

Senator Lieberman recently sent his annual letter to Senate Appropriators detailing the funding needed for government management, which includes material on PACER.
(The full letter appears below.)

With regard to PACER, Senator Lieberman states: “As a result, funds collected by the $.08-per-page charge have been used for initiatives that are unrelated to providing public access via PACER and against the requirement of the E-Government Act. The Appropriations Committee should review the Judiciary Information Technology Fund Report provided each year to ensure the funds generated from PACER are only going to pay for the direct costs of disseminating documents via PACER, and not for additional items which I believe should be funded through direct appropriations.”

We will see what happens next….

For more commentary on this topic, see Steve Schultze’s Managing Miracles.

March 25, 2010

The Honorable Richard Durbin

Chairman

Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government

Committee on Appropriations

184 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Susan Collins

Ranking Member

Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government

Committee on Appropriations

125 Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Durbin and Ranking Member Collins:

Thank you for affording me the opportunity to provide my views.  I hope the following recommendations and comments will assist you as your subcommittee deliberates on the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2011.

Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

I remain deeply concerned that the Administration has not yet nominated anyone for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, and reconstituted by the 2007 Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act.  The 9/11 Commission recognized that without adequate oversight the vital work of combating terrorism could tread dangerously close to intruding on core rights and liberties, and urged creation of this Board to help advise on and review the nation’s policies against terrorism with an eye toward safeguarding key freedoms. While we applaud the hard work of the original Board, in 2007 Congress concluded that the panel needed more independence and reconstituted it as an independent agency outside the Executive Office of the President. Unfortunately, the effort to create a stronger Board has, thus far, resulted in no board at all. I once again urge the President to put forward nominees for the Board without delay, and I urge the Appropriations Committee to fund it at a robust level. The authorizing legislation originally recommended funding of $10 million by FY 2011. While it is questionable that a new Board could effectively spend that much in its first year, I recommend that the Board receive funding to begin as strongly as feasible, certainly well above the President’s request of $1.68 million.

Office of Electronic Government and the Electronic Government Fund

This year the Administration requested $35 million in the General Services Administration (GSA) budget for the E-Government Fund for the establishment of pilots relating to cloud computing, collaborative platforms, and transparency and participation. In FY 2009 the Administration rolled out a number of ambitious initiatives, including data.gov, the IT Dashboard, and apps.gov, which have increased transparency and have begun to illustrate the potential for reducing costs and increasing transparency across the government by using information technology. The additional funds requested for FY 2010 will be used to further modernize government systems and pave the way for greater savings. For that reason, I fully support the Administration’s request for $35 million for this effort.

In addition, the Administration has requested $50 million for the Integrated, Efficient and Effective Uses of Information Technology fund in the budget for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). These funds would both further implement pilots originally developed under the E-Government Fund and assist with project management and guidance for information technology projects. While I believe this is an important goal and support the amounts requested, this funding should be included with the $35 million for the statutorily-created E-Government fund – which is required to report to Congress on its expenditures. Funding these initiatives, along with the additional project management tools, will lower costs and allow departments and agencies to provide additional services in less time. As a result, we are likely to see more results from our information technology expenditures and greater savings in future fiscal years.

Given the important role of the E-Government Office in managing these funds and its additional responsibilities, I also believe that the Congress should increase the appropriation for OMB to allow for additional staff for this office.  Currently, the E-Government Office has approximately 13 FTEs with the statutory responsibility to manage the information technology budget across the entire Federal government – which will add up to over $79 billion in the FY 2011 budget request. In addition, the E-Government Office has responsibilities – shared with the Department of Homeland Security – over the security of Federal information systems, but has limited staff to assist in this key priority. Given the office’s role, I recommend that the budget for OMB be increased by $3 million to allow for the hiring of additional staff in the E-Government Office.

Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)

I have concerns about how the Administrative Office of the Courts is interpreting a key provision of the E-Government Act relating to public access to Court records. Given the transparency efforts that have been made a priority across the Federal Government – as well as the recent call in the FCC’s Broadband plan for increased online access to court records – I believe more attention needs to be paid to make these records free and easily accessible.

As you know, Court documents are electronically disseminated through the PACER system, which charges $.08-a-page for access. While charging for access was previously required, Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913 note) so that courts “may, only to the extent necessary” (instead of “shall”) charge fees “for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.” The Committee report stated: “[t]he Committee intends to encourage the Judicial Conference to move from a fee structure in which electronic docketing systems are  supported primarily by user fees to a fee structure in which this information is freely available to the greatest extent possible… Pursuant to existing law, users of PACER are charged fees that are higher than the marginal cost of disseminating the information.”

Since the passage of the E-Government Act, the vision of having information “freely available to the greatest extent possible” is far from being met, despite the technological innovations that should have led to reduced costs in the past eight years. In fact, cost for these documents has gone up, from $.07 to $.08-per-page. The Judiciary has attempted to mitigate the shortcomings of the current fee approach in a variety of ways, including limiting charges to $2.40-per-document and the recent announcement that any charges less than $10-per-quarter will be waived. While these efforts should be commended, I continue to have concerns that these steps will not dramatically increase public access as long as the pay-per-access model continues.

To move closer to the mandate of the E-Government Act, the Administrative Office of the Courts should reevaluate the current PACER pay-per-access model. Even to retrieve free materials such as opinions, PACER currently requires the individual to establish a PACER account. One goal of this review should be to create a payment system that is used only to recover the direct cost of distributing documents via PACER. That review should also examine how a payment system could allow for free bulk access to raw data that would allow increased analytical and oversight capability by third parties.

Additionally, in 2007, the Judiciary asked for and received written consent from the Appropriations Committees to “expand use of Electronic Public Access (EPA) receipts to support courtroom technology allotments for installation, cyclical replacement of equipment, and infrastructure maintenance.” As a result, funds collected by the $.08-per-page charge have been used for initiatives that are unrelated to providing public access via PACER and against the requirement of the E-Government Act. The Appropriations Committee should review the Judiciary Information Technology Fund Report provided each year to ensure the funds generated from PACER are only going to pay for the direct costs of disseminating documents via PACER, and not for additional items which I believe should be funded through direct appropriations.

Modernization of Acquisition Systems

I support the President’s request for an additional $20.5 million for the General Services Administration for the purpose of modernizing the Integrated Acquisition Environment (IAE), which consists of eight major data systems, including the Federal Procurement Data System, Federal Business Opportunities (FedBizOpps.gov), the Excluded Parties List, and the Past Performance Information Retrieval System.  These systems support over 40,000 federal procurement professionals, 600,000 vendors, over $523 billion in annual procurement spending, and over eight million transactions per year.  Unfortunately, despite depending on the same underlying data, these systems were developed over the years in a stove-piped manner and therefore are disjointed and difficult to use.  Modernization of IAE will help the federal acquisition workforce make smarter contracting decisions and ensure that contracts are not awarded to irresponsible parties or to companies that have been debarred or suspended.  In addition, providing easier access to information about federal procurement opportunities would enhance competition by attracting a larger pool of potential bidders.  Finally, a modernized IAE would provide greater transparency to the American public and the Congress on federal contract spending.  I am convinced that this investment in IAE will pay for itself over time.

Acquisition Workforce

The President’s budget requests $24.9 million for the General Services Administration for government-wide efforts to strengthen the acquisition workforce through better training, certification, and workforce management.  The number of acquisition professionals in the federal government simply has not kept pace with the explosive growth in federal contracting over the last decade.  Moreover, more than half of the acquisition workforce will be eligible to retire over the next eight years. We therefore are fast approaching a crisis unless we recruit and train a skilled workforce that can promote competition, get the best value for the government, and guard against waste, fraud and abuse in federal contracting.  I understand that there may be some unobligated balances in the Acquisition Workforce Training Fund that may be available to help fund the President’s proposed initiative. While taking those funds into account, I urge the Committee to provide a sufficient amount to fund the proposed initiative.

Office of Federal Procurement Policy

I am extremely concerned that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) within the Office of Management and Budget lacks adequate personnel to carry out its mission of providing overall government-wide direction for procurement policies, regulations, and procedures.  While total federal spending on goods and services has risen dramatically over the last decade, from $189 billion in 1999 to over $523 billion in 2009, the staffing level at OFPP has remained stagnant at roughly a dozen FTE’s, including administrative support.  Both under legislative mandate and at President Obama’s direction, OFPP is responsible for reducing waste and abuse in contracting by promoting competition, preventing misuse of cost-plus contracts, bringing rationale to the interagency contracting process, mitigating conflicts of interest, and ensuring that inherently-governmental work is performed by federal employees.  Each of these areas is highly complex and requires strong government-wide leadership from OFPP to bring greater efficiency and integrity to federal contracting.  I therefore recommend that, at a minimum, the appropriation for OFPP be doubled, from $3 million to $6 million.

United States Postal Service

The United States Postal Service (USPS or Postal Service) continues to experience accelerated declines in mail volume and revenue, primarily due to the current economic crisis and the electronic diversion of mail.  In fiscal year 2009, the Postal Service recorded a loss of $3.8 billion and USPS ended the first quarter of this fiscal year (October 1 to December 31, 2009) with a net loss of $297 million.  The Postmaster General recently indicated that, without substantial changes, losses will be even more substantial going forward.

Therefore, as Congress works with the Postal Service on long-term solutions, I recommend that we consider providing the Postal Service with additional financial relief in FY 2011.  One option, recommended by the Postal Service, is to allow USPS to restructure its required payments into the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.  Currently, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (P.L. 109-435) requires the Postal Service to pre-pay its retiree health benefits obligations for future retirees into the Fund, while it makes payments for current retirees.  Thus, restructuring the Postal Service’s payments into the Fund would provide USPS with financial relief during this economic downturn.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

I support the $460 million in the President’s budget request for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The role of the National Archives in protecting and preserving our national heritage continues to be critical – particularly as the number of records it preserves and protects increases exponentially. Furthermore, in recent years, NARA has received many additional responsibilities, including the establishment of the National Declassification Center last year and the creation of the Office of Government Information Services to oversee Freedom of Information Act activities government-wide. In 2008, NARA was designated as the lead agency for the implementation of the Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) framework, which is intended to streamline the use of sensitive, unclassified information within the federal government.

I also believe that the appropriation for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) should be increased from $10 million to $13 million. The NHPRC supports the efforts of NARA to preserve and publish any material relating to the history of the United States. In the last Congress, this Committee passed the Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-404), which gave additional responsibilities to the NHPRC to make grants to preserve records of former Presidents, provide online access to the documents of the founding fathers, and create a database for records of servitude, emancipation, and post-Civil War reconstruction. I believe these important missions require additional funding for the Commission to allow it to also continue its traditional role in protecting the records that define this country.

* * * * *

I appreciate this opportunity to comment on issues of concern to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Sincerely,

Joseph I. Lieberman
Chairman

PACER pace picks up

PACER Service Center Maintains Busy Pace
 
The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) System has attracted 65,000 new accounts since fiscal year 2010 began October 1, 2009, keeping the PACER Service Center busy.

At the halfway point of the fiscal year, the PACER Service Center responded to 70,000 telephone calls and 17,000 emails.
 
http://www.uscourts.gov/newsroom/2010/PACERsBusyPace.cfm