This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Paying for Court Documents – An Infringement of Rights?
When researching cases for the project, court documents are the jackpot of source files. I always feel a tiny bit of excitement when I am able to find a free indictment or plea document online. However, I think my excitement stems from the sad truth that court records, for the most part, are often really difficult to acquire, either due to not updated and unorganized databases or
required payments for searches and downloads. Whether I am searching for a federal case on a website, like PACER, or for a state case on a district or court website, there are often many obstacles I must face in order to collect the records I need. This has made me think about how difficult is it really to access source documents, and also whether we should even be required to pay for court documents at all.
Since most of the cases we add to our database are of federal jurisdiction, I will begin by discussing the issues and complications with accessing federal records. The tPP team often looks to PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, to collect court documents; however, only one of two members our team has access to the site because of the membership costs. Pacer holds more than 300 million documents from over 90 district courts and 13 appellate circuits, which is basically a goldmine to an over-excited researcher, but you have to pay “$30 for the search, plus $0.10 per page per document delivered electronically, for up to 5 documents (30 page cap applies)”(Hughes; PACER). Calling the program the Public Access to Court Electronic Records is a little misleading because the public does not have the ability to access the documents as they wish, with those who cannot afford it being unfairly disadvantaged. What’s even worse is that a lot of the money that PACER users pay in order to search names and access documents is not even spent on PACER itself (Browdie). A good bulk goes into other areas, such as paying for technology for courtrooms (See graph below):
In a list compiled by All Jarmanning of Boston University, I was able to view the various multitude of court and district websites containing court records for each state in the U.S. By doing this, I was able to get an idea of just how many states require a fee to search, access, or download court cases. There are many state court cases that I can access for free, such as those in Arizona, Connecticut, and New Mexico; however, each of these differs in the number of cases or courts that are available, the amount of information they provide, and the documents they allow users to view. For example, the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County provides case information but does not provide any court documents (See example below).
There are also states in which some court cases and districts are accessible for free, and others are not. In California, various areas have different court sites, but more than five of these courts require around $1 per page. In Kansas, the district courts charge $1.50 per search, even if the search comes up empty; however, the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals records are free. In addition, there are states in which documents and information are not accessible unless a fee is paid. In Alabama, it costs $10 per name or case. In Colorado, it costs $7 if you want to conduct a statewide search ($2 if you only want to search in Denver; $5 if you want to search everywhere but Denver; $7 for a combined search), even if you come up with nothing. Furthermore, the site does not even provide online access to documents, only basic information.
In 1996, President Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act which mainly protects any person’s right to request access to federal records or information. Though there are some exceptions to this such as court information concerning juveniles or mental health commitment, court records generally fall in the realm of information that is available to the public. Therefore, I am led to ask the question: why are we spending hundreds of dollars on documents that technically should be free?
Browdie, B. (2016, October 14). PACER fees for US court documents are facing a legal challenge of their own [News Outlet]. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from Quartz website: https://qz.com/800076/the-cost-of-electronic-access-to-us-court-filings-is-facing-a-major-legal-test-of-its-own/
Court Records and Proceedings: What is Public and Why? (2017, April 18). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from Connor Reporting website: https://connorreporting.com/court-records-proceedings-public/
Criminal Court Case Information—Case History [Government]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from The Judicial Branch of Arizona Maricopa County website: http://www.superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/docket/CriminalCourtCases/caseInfo.asp?caseNumber=CR2010-142511
Hughes, S. (2019, March 20). The Federal Courts Are Running An Online Scam [News Outlet]. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from POLITICO Magazine website:
PACER – Frequently Asked Questions [Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts]. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2019, from PACER website: https://www.pacer.gov/psc/faq.html