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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Courts - PACER's $0.08 a page rate adds up in a hurry

That is the conclusion from this WIRED story by Ryan Singel, headlined "DOJ Pays $4M a Year to Read Public Court Documents." The story begins:

The federal court system charged the Department of Justice more than $4 million in 2009 for access to its electronic court filing system, which is composed entirely of documents in the public domain.

That’s according to government documents made public through a Freedom of Information Act request by open government advocate Carl Malamud. Malamud sought the information to prove that an open source repository of U.S. legal materials — a project called Law.gov — could eventually save the government a billion dollars.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts runs the search system known as PACER. PACER charges citizens, journalists, corporate lawyers and even the Attorney General $.08 per page to look at court filings in U.S. District Courts. The system pulled in nearly $50 million in 2006. The contract between the PACER office and the Justice Department began in 2002 with a charge of $800,000, which quickly rose to more than $4.2 million in 2009.

PACER is a buggy, barebones system with an interface seemingly designed in 1995. Though all the court documents it indexes are in the public record, the U.S. Court system refuses to make them available for bulk download. PACER also does not cover tax courts or the Supreme Court. [Disclosure: Wired.com nurtures a hefty PACER bill].

To cover the gaps, the Justice Department paid the law publishing giant West Publishing $5 million in 2005. That contract promised the DOJ online access to the opinions of the Supreme Court, tax courts records, appeals court decisions and bankruptcy court. Also covered were state laws and court rules, the Congressional record, the U.S. code and federal public laws.

West, and its competitor, Lexis Nexis, buy court data in bulk, reformat it and add proprietary citation codes. They then license the database of public documents at high rates to libraries, law firms and government agencies. Even the U.S. Court system pays West’s high license fees to access public court documents that West purchased from it.

The Justice Department isn’t alone in paying for access to court documents for PACER. In fact, it seems to be standard operating policy. The IRS, for example, spent $950,000 in 2008 to see the same documents.

A somewhat related story, from the blog Boing Boing, is headed "Oregon Attorney General releases "copyrighted" Public Meeting Manual, will hold hearings on whether Oregon law is copyrighted." (See this ILB entry from Oct. 27, 2009 for background.) Here is the Dec. 2nd announcement from the Oregon AG.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 3, 2009 01:20 PM
Posted to Courts in general