Bill in Congress would make online access to federal court records free

ATLANTA (CN) — House lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill Wednesday that would remove online paywalls and make federal court records free to the public.

PACER, as the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system is otherwise known, currently charges between 10 cents and $3 for most searches, page views and PDF document downloads.

That would change under the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, which is sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.

In addition to making federal court records free of charge online, the bill would improve document accessibility the PACER website, while also requiring online access to audio and visual court records. The website upgrades would include new technology to enhance security.

Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, called the current paywall system unreasonable.

“Courts represent a cornerstone of our democracy,” Collins said in a statement Wednesday. “We expect them to deliver justice in public, open for any and all to inspect, and this goal can’t be achieved when case filings and other documents are shrouded behind a paywall.”

Quigley, who serves as the co-founder and co-chair of the Transparency Caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that the bill is a “prime example of a common-sense initiative to increase transparency and accountability.”

“The American people deserve free access to federal court records, and courts deserve a modernized way of maintaining those documents,” Quigley said.

Lawmakers introduced a similar bill in September but failed to get a hearing.

The renewed proposal comes after a federal judge ruled last year that PACER fees have been unlawfully set above the amount authorized by Congress.

The National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center and the Alliance for Justice had brought the case as a federal class action in Washington, alleging that the government unfairly overcharges the public for online access to court records via PACER.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle noted in her ruling that the judiciary collected more than $920 million in PACER fees between 2010 and 2016.

The United States has appealed Huvelle’s order to the Federal Circuit.

The News Media Alliance, National Newspaper Association and broadcast and other journalists organizations such as ASNE and SPJ are part of the News Media for Open Government coalition and will be discussing the legislation.

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