The US House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Open Courts Act. The bill aims to modernize PACER, the website that provides public access to federal court records. It also aims to eliminate PACER's paywall by 2025.
The PACER system represented a big advance for judicial transparency when it went online in the 1990s. But the system hasn't kept up with the times, with a user interface that has changed little since the days of dial-up Internet.
In September, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Open Courts Act of 2020 (H.R. 8235) by voice vote. The bipartisan bill—co-sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.)—seeks to knock down the current paywall around public federal court filings.
Today, the federal judiciary maintains online public court records, called the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER, for short). But, to view these records, PACER forces users to register for an account, provide credit card information, and then charges users 10 cents a page to download and view most public filings.
A paywall around public court records causes numerous problems. Not only is the PACER system outdated and challenging to navigate, but a paywall around public court filings also disadvantages indigent and pro se litigants and makes it difficult for researchers and journalists to gain comprehensive and accurate information about our federal courts.
The bipartisan Open Courts Act would ultimately make PACER free, allowing greater access for litigants and more research opportunities for researchers, journalists and nonprofits. The Act would also modernize the outdated PACER system, making it easier to search for records and public information.