Online tool sheds sunlight on court records

Academics create Web application that provides free public access to court documents nationwide.

A group of academics have unveiled an online tool to make federal courts transparent by providing free public access to court records -- and they are encouraging the White House to help with the effort.

The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University this month began to unlock the paid service, Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), with an application that automatically donates purchased documents to a free online repository. The service RECAP -- which is "PACER" turned around, literally --- is available for download through the Mozilla browser. It launches when a user accesses the official PACER site. The software flags documents that already are free, and uploads to the public archive those that users buy. PACER provides electronic access to U.S. appellate, district and bankruptcy court records and documents nationwide.

"User fees are not on their face an absurd proposition," said RECAP co-developer Stephen Schultze, who is also a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "On the other hand, there may be enough benefits to open access . . . and justice that it would be worth funding it out of general taxpayer dollars."

The 2002 E-Government Act says the judiciary "may, only to the extent necessary, prescribe reasonable fees" for accessing information through the Internet.

But the 2009 budget plan of the U.S. judiciary, which refers to itself as the court, indicated that online public access fees are subsidizing costs that go beyond the "extent necessary" to fund access, Schultze said. For example, the fees are covering $25.8 million for courtroom technology systems, and $1 million for violent crime notifications.

"I think the [court] administration has gotten used to this revenue stream," he added.

PACER currently charges 8 cents per page for each document search. The fees apply to the number of pages resulting from any search, including a one-page charge for no matches. The maximum charge per document is $2.40, with the exception of transcripts, for which there is no fee limit.

In February, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., a key author of the E-Government Act, asked the court in a letter to explain how officials are complying with the mandate that it charge only "to the extent necessary" for records.

Court officials in a March letter replied, "We assure you that the judiciary is charging PACER fees only to the extent necessary. . . the fact remains that the [electronic public access] program does require funding, and Congress has never provided appropriations for its support. If the users, the largest of which are finance and information management corporations, are not charged for the services they receive, the judiciary cannot maintain PACER or other public access facilities unless Congress annually provides taxpayer-funded appropriations to support the program."

Aides said on Tuesday that Lieberman is not satisfied with the extent of the court's efforts. He wants public access to be as broad as possible without infringing on privacy, they added.

The information access community said the RECAP project could provide economic evidence to prove that PACER is not cost-effective.

"It will be important for the court to see that kind of usage and what people can do with those kinds of resources," said Prudence S. Adler, associate executive director at the Association of Research Libraries. "This activity may help the government see that there is another path forward."

U.S. Courts spokesman Richard Carelli said he could not comment because the court has not had enough time to examine the RECAP software.

Public information specialists also suggested that the executive branch provide free access to judicial documents through an official government Web site, in keeping with President Obama's focus on transparency and collaboration in government.

Schultze identified a few approaches the executive branch could take to freely distribute such documents. The president has latitude to make budgetary changes in his appropriations requests to Congress and could recommend that lawmakers allocate enough money to pay for free public access to judicial documents. In addition, the federal government's publishing arm, the Government Printing Office, could offer technical support, Schultze said. GPO already maintains the Supreme Court Web site.

Adler also said the White House, specifically Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, could step in to prod the courts toward a free system.

"There would be benefit across all three branches of government to come up with some more common strategies," she added. "There is a price to pay by not collaborating."