December 10, 2020

Wyden, Portman Introduce Open Courts Act to Reform Federal Court Record System to Ensure Easy & Free Use For All Americans

WASHINGTON, DC — U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have introduced the Open Courts Act to reform the federal government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), a database of federal judicial filings.

This consensus legislation builds off the Electronic Court Records Reform Act that Wyden and Portman introduced in 2019. The PACER system is outdated and charges exorbitant fees to users. This bill will reform PACER to solve these problems and ensure easy and free public access to federal government court records. Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hank Johnson (D-GA) are leading the legislation in the House of Representatives.

“For far too long, unnecessary paywalls have kept the American people from freely accessing public court records. The Open Courts Act will deliver a long-overdue upgrade to PACER, totaling a savings of more than a hundred million dollars a year in operating costs. Federal courts will then be able to remove burdensome paywalls and provide the public, including researchers and journalists, with free access to public court documents,” Wyden said.

“PACER was intended to create a level playing field for small-time litigants, small business, civil society, journalists, and citizens who care about transparency in government,” said Senator Portman. “However, with its frustrating interface and fees, PACER has done the opposite. The American people should have easy access to the court records of their country, and this bipartisan, consensus legislation will fix the problem once and for all by putting in place a free, streamlined system with an emphasis on security, accessibility, affordability, and performance.”  

NOTE:  This legislation will resolve three issues with the PACER system:

  • PACER aggregates 319 million legal documents across 94 district courts and 13 appellate circuits, but it has no uniform way of filing, tracking, and saving case information.
  • PACER charges 10 cents for each search, and with its cumbersome search function, users can easily squander resources on incorrect searches. Moreover, once a document is found, it costs an additional 10 cents per page to download or print.
  • The E-Government Act, enacted in 2002, permits the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to impose fees on PACER, but “only to the extent necessary” to make the documents available to the public. Yet, even at 10 cents a search/page, PACER brings in $146 million in revenue annually. This figure vastly exceeds the amount it takes to operate a website and the money has been found to be used for purposes not directly related to the public access of records.

The Open Courts Act would modernize the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts’ underlying record system and eliminate the PACER paywall that forces the public to pay more than $140 million annually to access court records. The new system will provide a stable, secure, easily searchable site to file and read court records and monitor docket activity. All public court records on the site will be available free of charge.