As the Open Courts Act of 2021 progresses along its hopeful path to passage, promising the end of exorbitant PACER fees, many of us in academia are wondering what this will mean for the docket access we currently purchase (or wish we could purchase) through vendors such as Bloomberg, Lexis, Westlaw, and/or Fastcase. It’s worth it at this point to take a look back at where we’ve been, and forward to where we may be headed, and we are optimistic at the prospects.
PACER fees have been a long-standing headache for academics. The money generated in accessing electronic public court records provides the judiciary with a substantial revenue stream, with predicted PACER revenue for both fiscal years 2021 and 2022 of about 142 million, yet PACER itself lacks the enhancements commercial providers offer, like alerts. For academic institutions, the financial burden incurred by clinics and researchers who need to follow cases can be substantial and often prohibitive. When Bloomberg Law entered the legal research market in 2010, law school libraries breathed a sigh of relief as this new service provided unlimited access to PACER for academic accounts. Unfortunately, years later and in the face of mounting costs, this was walked back with dollar limits, returning many institutions to the dreaded “before” days of limited PACER access and looking for alternatives. Other platforms offer some forms of docket access, but not to the extent Bloomberg once provided, and academia is often charged large additional fees, if our academic accounts have docket access at all.
PACER fees have been the target of both creative solutions and lawsuits, with limited or yet-to be-seen success. Recap offers free access to PACER documents uploaded by users in a crowdsourced database, but access is limited to those documents others have sourced and included. The 2016 lawsuit filed by the National Consumer Law Center and the National Veterans Legal Services accusing the US Government of overcharging and misusing PACER fees achieved preliminary success in the DC Circuit but still churns on, although the end may be in sight. While this action has very recently (and tentatively) settled, we don’t yet know the terms, or what relief may be included for academic institutions. A status report is scheduled for January 20. We’ll see.
In the meantime, Congress is working hard on a legislative fix. In the 116th Congress, the Open Courts Act of 2020 passed the House, and was sent to the Senate where it died in the Judiciary Committee, but not without garnering substantial support. That bill had only two sponsors, and it would have still allowed the charging of fees for “power users,” with the caveat that these fees “may not impair access to justice and the public right of access to court records,” nor “restrain innovation” or “inhibit not for profit research of the business of the Federal courts.”
So, is relief finally coming? The current Open Courts Act of 2021 was introduced last August in the Senate by Republican Rob Portman with the bi-partisan support of 14 co-sponsors. This version would still allow fees against users who spend more than $25,000 a quarter, along with federal agencies, which will help fund a new case management system. Although it has been reported favorably out of the Judiciary Committee, and an identical bill was re-introduced in the House last November, GovTrack only gives it a 13% chance of passage, and Lexis+ bill tracking also predicts the chance of passage as low. Perhaps these algorithms don’t read press releases or don’t factor in the bi-partisan support, the lack of any vocal opponents, or the ongoing legal disputes it would resolve, but plenty of us put the odds of passage much greater as this issue has gained wide traction.
Which leads us to ask our vendors, what will you do once PACER fees become free to the public? Will you allow academic institutions to subscribe to all of your docket alert and tracking services? Will the large added fees for docket access be waived, allowing our students to gain practice in researching dockets and thereby draw more customers to your product? Or, will this allow for the development of new and even more user-friendly docket search platforms? As Bloomberg discovered, docket access can be a great magnet drawing users to your platforms. Once PACER fees are contained, or perhaps in anticipation thereof, we are anxiously awaiting the enhanced docket access the new year may bring.