This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Problems with Pacer and How it Affects Our Team
Access to electronic court documents is crucial to the Prosecution Project (tPP). Our team is reliant on numerous platforms while collecting case information. Typically, our case coders start with a simple Google search to get a briefing on the selected case, continuing on to more specific and advanced google searches in hopes of finding court document PDFs. Next, our coders will look to the Department of Justice, and then to local or regional news sources. Finally, our coders continue on to search library databases. The collection of court documents and case information is a long, and tedious process. As a new member of our team, I was alarmed to see how difficult this process can be. I was especially shocked to come across cases in which our team struggles to find any information and sources at all.
As the United States has the largest incarceration rate per capita in the entire world and is prideful about the country’s constant strive for innovation and technological advancements, I was appalled to see the outdated and inefficient system called PACER.
PACER, the “Public Acess to Court Electronic Records”, should be a logical solution to many of our team member’s struggles. PACER provides electronic dockets, summaries and filed documents for federal cases. These dockets often contain crucial information for multiple variables in our data set that other resources can not provide. However, access to these documents is far from free.
PACER comes at a cost, and that cost is 10 cents per page (and 10 cents per search) for each document accessed. As the document price caps at three dollars, one can only imagine how quickly PACER fees accumulate (Carver, 2015). As a new member of the team, collecting source files has been much more difficult than I could have ever imagined. It is shocking to have to struggle to find access to court documents which are supposed to be public information. As James B. Haines Jr, a Maine bankruptcy judge explains “‘the information is free at the courthouse, as it’s always been… What you’re paying for is the delivery system and maintaining the delivery system. It’s not a price for the law. It’s a price to have it handed to you on your desktop at your convenience at your command”’ (Browdie, 2018).
However, PACER is far from convenient and the cost is not only monetary. PACER is an outdated system that takes time, practice, and patience to navigate. The system is far from advanced modern search engines. To use PACER you need to know exactly what you are looking for, as PACER has no ability to search by any variable besides the litigant’s name or docket number (Browdie, 2018). There is no way to search a word or phrase related to the case, making it extremely inefficient for research projects like The Prosecution Project. Imagine how effective it would be to search keywords such as “terrorism,” “extremism,” “bias-motivated crime,” etc. Unfortunately, this is not currently possible with PACER.
To further our team’s frustrations with collecting source documents, federal court documents come from ninety-four district-level courts all with varying filing processes. These small discrepancies in each district’s filling processes can often cause mixed, and sometimes failed search results. This adds to our frustrations with PACER as an unsuccessful search still results in a charge (Hughes, 2019).
As terrorism researcher (and tPP Advisory Board member) Seamus Hughes explains in regards to PACER: “one must know the quirks in the system,” and this could not be truer (Hughes, 2019). After just weeks of joining the tPP team, I, along with many of my peers are quickly realizing that, like most things in life, PACER will surely take some time to learn how to successfully navigate.
Browdie, Brian. “The Cost of Electronic Access to US Court Filings Is Facing a Major Legal Test of Its Own.” Quartz, Quartz, 10 Aug. 2018, qz.com/800076/the-cost-of-electronic-access-to-us-court-filings-is-facing-a-major-legal-test-of-its-own/.
Carver, Brian. “What Is the ‘PACER Problem’?” Free Law Project, 20 Mar. 2015, free.law/2015/03/20/what-is-the-pacer-problem/.
Hughes, Seamus, et al. “The Federal Courts Are Running An Online Scam.” POLITICO Magazine, 20 Mar. 2019, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/20/pacer-court-records-225821.