PACER (acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is an electronic public access service of United States federal court documents. It allows users to obtain case and docket information from the United States district courts, United States courts of appeals, and United States bankruptcy courts. The system is managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in accordance with the policies of the Judicial Conference, headed by the Chief Justice of the United States. As of 2013, it holds more than 500 million documents.
Each court maintains its own system, with a small subset of information from each case transferred to the U.S. Party/Case Index server, located in San Antonio, Texas at the PACER Service Center, each night. Records are submitted to the individual courts using the Federal Judiciary's Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, and usually accepts the filing of documents in the Portable Document Format (PDF) through the courts' electronic court filing (e-filing) system. Each court maintains its own databases with case information. Because PACER database systems are maintained within each court, each jurisdiction will have a different URL.
PACER has been criticized for being technically out of date and hard to use, and for demanding fees for records which are in the public domain. In reaction, non-profit projects have begun to make such documents available online for free. One such project, RECAP, was related to a federal criminal investigation of Aaron Swartz which was later dropped.
The PACER System offers electronic access to case dockets to retrieve information such as:
- A listing of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys, and trustees
- A compilation of case related information such as cause of action, case number, nature of suit, and dollar demand
- A chronology of dates of case events entered in the case record
- A claims registry
- A listing of new cases each day
- Appellate court opinions
- Judgments or case status
- Types of documents filed for certain cases
- Many courts offer imaged copies of documents
Costs, revenues and free alternatives
The United States Congress has given the Judicial Conference of the United States authority to impose user fees for electronic access to case information. All registered agencies or individuals are charged a user fee.
The fee, as of April 1, 2012, to access the web-based PACER systems is $0.10 per page. Prior to that the fee was $0.08 per page and prior to January 1, 2005, the fee was $0.07 per page. The per page charge applies to the number of pages that results from any search, including a search that yields no matches with a one page charge for no matches. The charge applies whether or not pages are printed, viewed, or downloaded. There is a maximum charge of $3.00 for electronic access to any single document.
In March 2001, the Judicial Conference of the United States decided that no fee would be owed until a user accrued more than $10 worth of charges in a calendar year. If an account does not accrue $10 worth of usage between January 1 and December 31 of a year, the amount owed would be zeroed. In March 2010, that limit was effectively quadrupled, with users not billed unless their charges exceed $10 in a quarterly billing period. Beginning in 2012, the limit was $15 per quarter.
Effective with Version 2.4 (March 7, 2005) of the PACER software, to comply with the E-Government Act of 2002, written opinions that "set forth a reasoned explanation for a court's decision" are free of charge. In order to facilitate access to written opinions, the court system also provides them on CourtWeb, which does not require PACER registration.
According to the Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule adopted by the Judicial Conference on 13 September 2011:
- Consistent with Judicial Conference policy, courts may, upon a showing of cause, exempt indigents, bankruptcy case trustees, individual researchers associated with educational institutions, courts, section 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations, court appointed pro bono attorneys, and pro bono ADR neutrals from payment of these fees. Courts must find that parties from the classes of persons or entities listed above seeking exemption have demonstrated that an exemption is necessary in order to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to information. For individual researchers, courts must also find that the defined research project is intended for academic research, and not for commercial purposes or internet redistribution. Any user granted an exemption agrees not to sell for profit the data obtained as a result. Any transfer of data obtained as the result of a fee exemption is prohibited unless expressly authorized by the court. Exemptions may be granted for a definite period of time and may be revoked at the discretion of the court granting the exemption.
A "policy note" attached to the Electronic Public Access Fee Schedule states:
- Courts should not exempt local, state or federal government agencies, members of the media, attorneys or others not members of one of the groups listed above. Exemptions should be granted as the exception, not the rule. A court may not use this exemption language to exempt all users. An exemption applies only to access related to the case or purpose for which it was given. The prohibition on transfer of information received without fee is not intended to bar a quote or reference to information received as a result of a fee exemption in a scholarly or other similar work.
Some courts such as the District Court for the District of Massachusetts have explicitly stated that "fee exempt PACER users must refrain from the use of RECAP". In 2009, the Los Angeles Times stated that RECAP cuts into PACER revenue about $10 million.
The New York Times has criticized PACER as "cumbersome, arcane and not free". In 2008, an effort led by Carl Malamud (who asserted that the PACER is "15 to 20 years out of date" and that it should not demand fees for documents which are in the public domain) spent $600,000 in contributions to put a 50 years archive of records from the federal courts of appeals online for free. In a critical article, the magazine Reason described the system as "archaic as a barrister’s wig".
Also in 2008, district courts, with the help of the Government Printing Office (GPO), opened a free trial of Pacer at 17 libraries around the country. After activist Aaron Swartz, following an appeal by Malamud, downloaded about 2.7 million documents library computer (less than 1% of the entire database, although the number has been stated incorrectly as 20% or 25%), to make them freely available to the public on Public.Resource.Org, the experiment was ended in late September 2008, with a notice from the GPO that the pilot program was suspended, “pending an evaluation.” In October, a GPO representative said that "the security of the Pacer service was compromised". A FOIA request revealed later that the FBI had opened a full investigation against Swartz, which was dropped in April.
In 2009, a team from Princeton University and Harvard University's Berkman Center created a software called "RECAP" which allows users to automatically search for free copies during a PACER search, and to help building up a free alternative database at the Internet Archive.
Other alternative sites republishing PACER documents include Caseflex, Docket Alarm, Inforuptcy.com, justia.com, the proprietary LexisNexis, which makes a copy of the whole database available, PlainSite, and Google Scholar.
- Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF)
- California Court Case Management System (CCMS)
- Lee, Timothy. "The inside story of Aaron Swartz’s campaign to liberate court filings". ars technica. Retrieved 8 August 2013.
- Bobbie Johnson (11 November 2009). "Recap: cracking open US courtrooms". The Guardian (London).
- EPA Fee Schedule Update (EPA = Electronic Public Access)
- "PACER brochure". 26 March 2012 (Google cache). Retrieved 11 April 2013.
- "District CM/ECF Version 2.4 Release Notes". March 7, 2005. Retrieved January 29, 2013.
- "CourtWeb: Online Federal Court Opinions Information System". U.S. Courts. Retrieved January 29, 2013.
- "CourtWeb and Written Opinions". CourtWeb. U.S. Courts. Retrieved January 29, 2013.
- John Schwartz (February 12, 2009). "An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy". New York Times.
- "Implementation of the Electronic Public Access Fee Increase" (pdf). Retrieved January 24, 2013.
- "CM/ECF - USDC Massachusetts - Version 5.1.1 as of 12/5/2011-United States District Court".
- Michael Hiltzik: These crusaders bring transparency to government LA Times, September 28, 2009
- Ryan Singel: FBI Investigated Coder for Liberating Paywalled Court Records Wired.com, October 5, 2009
- McMillan, Candice. "Checking The Court Docket Manually Is So Outdated: Docket Alarm API". Programmable Web. Retrieved 8 August 2013.
- Gleason, Stephanie (April 18, 2012). "New Website Launches Bankruptcy-Focused PACER Alternative". The Wall Street Journal.