Appellate judges may provide relief to users of federal court document repository

Thousands of people who paid for records through the federal government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, may received a partial refund for charges if a class action lawsuit working its way through the court system proves successful.

On Monday, a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard arguments in the lawsuit brought by several legal non-profits who alleged the federal court system has been bilking thousands of users for access to public court records.

Congress gives the U.S. Court system the ability to charge reasonable fees related to the transmission and storage of electronic records through PACER. As of 2012, the court system charges members of the public 10 cents per search and another 10 cents for every page of a record up to $3.00 in a single download.

Those costs are waived if a user doesn’t generate more than $15 in billable services per quarter. But with the fees imposed, those costs quickly add up, and hundreds of researchers, journalists, bloggers and other professionals along with ordinary members of the public have long complained that the fees are unnecessary and burdensome.

Each year, PACER generates around $145 million in revenue from costs associated with searches and downloads. Congress intended that money to go toward maintaining the PACER system, but plaintiffs represented in a class action lawsuit argued the money is being spent on other things, including upgrades to courtrooms.

In 2018, a federal judge agreed with the plaintiffs in the case, saying Congress authorized the court system to set fees for PACER as necessary only to cover the cost of storage and distribution of records.

On Monday, an attorney representing the Department of Justice on the other end of the lawsuit said Congress’ directions over the money generated by PACER fees was too vague for plaintiffs to prevail in a lawsuit.

Both sides agreed that Congress authorized the court system to charge for storage and distribution of records, but plaintiffs in the case said the per-search and per-page fees charged since 2010 have generated more funds than necessary to cover the costs.

If the appellate judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the next step would be to determine how much to refund users for searches performed between 2010 and 2016.

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