Why Must Congress Drag The Federal Judiciary Into the 21st Century?

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced a bipartisan bill this week to improve access to federal courts by forcing the federal judiciary to make its court documents free to the public.

The Open Courts Act (H.R. 8235) if adopted, will make it much easier for individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent themselves in employment discrimination lawsuits. At least a quarter of federal lawsuits are brought by self-represented or pro se plaintiffs.

At present, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts (AOC) operates a complex data base system called Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) that charges viewers ten cents a page, up to $3 per document, to view court documents.

The system costs an estimated million dollars per year to operate but yields fees estimated at $146 million per year, resulting in a growing surplus.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, said at a hearing Tuesday that federal courts have “lagged behind modern standards of accessibility and openness.” He noted Congressional documents are free and easily accessible at congress.gov . By contrast, he said PACER is “difficult to understand,” “cumbersome” and carries “a landmine of fees.”

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