The Senate Judiciary Committee favorably reported the Open Courts Act of 2021 (S. 2614) to the full Senate floor with bipartisan support for the legislation.
The bill, if enacted by the full Senate, would eliminate fees for the public in accessing the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) court system and modernize the electronic court records system.
The bill was introduced in August by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio and co-sponsored by committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Cosponsors include Sens. Corey Booker, D-N.J., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chris Coons, D-Del., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., John Kennedy, R-La., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Diann Feinstein, D-Calif., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
“Presently litigants in Federal court and members of the public have to pay to get access to public Federal court records, like filings and briefs,” Sen. Durbin said. “Through the public access to court electronic records or the PACER system, big law firms have no problem, but these fees may be too expensive for individuals, small businesses, small law firms and nonprofits to track litigation that impacts them.”
The Open Courts Act of 2021 would resolve three lingering issues with the PACER System, including:
- Creating a uniform way of filing, tracking, and saving case information as PACER aggregates 319 million legal documents across 94 district courts and 13 appellate circuits;
- Addressing costs associated with using the PACER system. Currently, there is a 10-cent charge for each search on the system, which can quickly pile up especially due to incorrect searches. Additionally, once the correct document is found, it costs 10 more cents per page to download or print; and
- Addressing the annual revenue brought in by the system. Currently, the E-Government Act of 2002 allows the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to impose fees on PACER “only to the extent necessary” to make documents available to the public. But PACER brings in $146 million in annual revenue which “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 bill says.
“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 Sen. Portman said of the bill in a press release. “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.”