Fed judiciary says yes to free PACER searches. Here are the details so far

A bronze statue titled "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied" depicting a figure of Justice is seen on the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia
A bronze statue titled "Justice Delayed, Justice Denied" depicting a figure of Justice is seen on the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • Judicial Conference greenlights making searches for court filings free for noncommercial users
  • As Senate panel cleared full chamber to vote on Open Courts Act

(Reuters) - Federal judiciary policymakers have approved a plan to eliminate costly fees for online docket searches amid debate in Congress about whether to force the court system to make its PACER electronic court record system free for the general public.

A newly released report on the Judicial Conference of the United States' closed-door March 15 meeting showed that the policymaking body greenlighted making PACER searches free for non-commercial users in any future overhauls of the system.

Work on building a new case management and electronic filing system with modern technology is already underway, according to the report, which was posted online late last week. How long that will take is unclear.

Users are currently charged $0.10 per page to search for cases through PACER, which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Downloading documents likewise costs $0.10 per page with a cap of $3 per document, excluding transcripts. The judiciary did not approve removing charges for downloads.

The plan to eliminate some, though not all, of those fees and modernize PACER came as Congress considers whether to pass the Open Courts Act, a bill that would require the judiciary to update PACER and make downloading filings free for the public.

The Senate Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan vote in December advanced the bill to the full Senate for its consideration. The U.S. House of Representatives during the last Congress passed a similar bill in 2020.

The judiciary has raised concerns about the bill's impact on its own efforts to modernize PACER and how eliminating user fees would affect revenue to support it. The judiciary projects it will collect about $142 million in fees this fiscal year.

"After years of fighting Congressional efforts to make PACER free, it is great to hear that the courts are now embracing the idea that members of the public shouldn't be gouged to access public court records," Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

U.S. District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in prepared testimony told a House committee on May 12 that the current system, which went online in 2001, is "outdated" and needs replacing.

Mauskopf said initial steps to replace PACER had already been taken and said the judiciary is "fully committed" to modernizing it and the related system lawyers use to file court documents electronically.

Read more:

Free PACER? Bill to end fees for online court records advances in Senate

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.