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