In working at Public Knowledge this summer, I was introduced to Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) for the first time. This resource was absolutely required for some of the FCC cases I worked on. PACER is basically a government service that provides United States federal court documents for a fee. Users can obtain case and docket information from the United States district courts, United States courts of appeals, and United States bankruptcy courts. The documents are behind a pay wall, even though they are essential to trying cases and are in the public domain. PACER is currently undergoing a review of its practices, and in response to this review, “a small band of law librarians who believe in improved open access” has started a petition to reform PACER. Please check it out and add your comments.
Here is the text of the Improve Pacer Petition:
We ask the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to improve PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) by enhancing the authenticity, usability and availability of the system.
We the undersigned, urge the Administrative Office of the US Courts (AO) to make the following changes to the PACER system:
* For verification and reliability, the AO should digitally sign every document put into PACER using readily available technology.
* PACER needs to be much more readily accessible if it is to be usable for research, education, and the practice of law. Improved accessibility includes both lowering the costs for using PACER and enhancing the web interfaces.
* Depository libraries should also have free access to PACER.
I agree with these basic points but believe the petition could go further. Below is my comment from when I signed the petition:
Access to primary legal materials is a fundamental human right. We cannot be a nation of laws if the proceedings of our courts are distributed at high cost, creating an economic barrier for access to justice.
I believe the same thing of all case law and law review articles. As long as the law is locked away, we will never have equal access to justice.