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PACER federal court record fees exceed system costs

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PACER federal court record fees exceed system costs

The federal government has collected millions from the online Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER – nearly five times what it cost to run the system.

Between fiscal years 2006 and 2010, the government collected an average of $77 million a year from PACER fees, according to the most recent federal figures available.

Critics have derided PACER, saying the government has increased user fees over the years without making the system easier to use. The fees, some say, act as a deterrent to public access.

The Judiciary Appropriations Act of 1992 limited the use of PACER fees to “reimburse 
providing these services.” But lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee have allowed the courts to invest in a wider range of information technology projects using fees collected from PACER. Fees for online access have risen from 7 cents to 10 cents per page.

“Given the lack of oversight for what the fees are being used for, the incentive for the courts is to raise fees,” said Stephen Schultze, associate director of Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

In recent years, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and the American Association of Law Libraries, which represents 5,000 law librarians nationwide, have tried without success to persuade the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and members of Congress to provide free access to PACER records.

Earlier this year, the Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of The Bay Citizen, applied for a limited exemption from PACER fees to research potential judicial conflicts in California. Such fee waivers are typically given to academics and nonprofits “to avoid unreasonable burdens and to promote public access to information.” CIR is a nonprofit organization.

The federal District Court for the Northern District of California initially granted CIR’s fee exemption, but subsequently revoked it on the grounds that CIR is a media organization not covered by the PACER fee schedule exemption clause. Similar exemption requests were denied by the three other federal judicial districts in California.

CIR attorneys are appealing the Northern District’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

PACER costs versus revenuesRevenues remaining from prior yearFee revenuesOperational costsRevenue surplus200620072008200920100M20M40M60M80M100M120MOperational costs2009: $19,000,000

Operational costs for FY2008 were not available and are estimated based on average of FY2007 and FY2009. SOURCE: Data compiled by Stephen Schultze of Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy

This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at

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