Carl Malamud, rogue archivist, in Wired

Wired's Ryan Singel's done a great profile on Boing Boing pal Carl Malamud, the rogue archivist who's taking all the public material the government charges money to access and putting it on the web for free.

If you want to search federal court documents, it's not a problem. Just apply online for an account, and the government will issue you a user name and password.

Through the postal service.

And once you log in, the government's courthouse search engine known as Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER, will charge you 8 cents a page to read documents that are in the public domain – a fee that earned the federal judiciary $50 million in profits in 2006.

With its high cost and limited functionality, critics call the system an absurdity in the era of Google, blogs and Wikipedia, where information is free and bandwidth, disk space and processing power are nearly so.

"The PACER system is the most broken part of our federal legal mechanism," says Carl Malamud, who runs the nonprofit open-government group Public.Resource.Org ."They have a mainframe mentality."

Now Malamud is doing something about it. He's asking lawyers to donate their PACER documents one by one, which he then classifies and bundles into ZIP files published for free at his organization's website. The one-year-old effort has garnered him 20 percent of all the files on PACER, including all decisions from federal appeals courts over the last 50 years.

Online Rebel Publishes Millions of Dollars in U.S. Court Records for Free (Image: Carl Malamud, by Joi Ito, under a CC Attribution license


  1. I’m glad that Boing Boing sheds a light on these things (even though I still regard it as a fascistic, capitalist farce after the VB incident) every once in awhile. Court documents should be online, and they should be free.

  2. I’m sorry, I have to make a small point about “mainframe mentality”. To quote Short Circuit – “It’s a machine, Schroeder. It doesn’t get pissed off, it doesn’t get happy, it doesn’t get sad, it doesn’t laugh at your jokes…

    Seriously – I work with mainframes. Though they are a centralized technology, invented when it was more cost-effective to share one expensive machine among many people, that isn’t the problem.

    The problem is the bureaucratic mentality which believes that The People exist for purposes of the bureaucracy, rather than the other way around.

    The People paid for these documents, The People own them. We (well, ‘we’ if you are a citizen of the US in this case) also paid for network connections that those systems use every day. In short, we’ve paid for all of it. They need to provide access to our property.

    We should take this to court – but I’m wondering if we would have a hard time since it’s the court system we’d be suing.

  3. As someone who uses the system on a daily basis and those of other court systems, I can say there are two sides to PACER.

    First, the bad: I agree that it’s criminal to make the public pay for it’s own property. The federal court system is doing the work of the people, and therefore everything it touches is public. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would have argued differently until a few weeks ago, but that’s a different story (look up Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus Inc.).

    Also, less substantively, it’s an awful system by modern standards. The interface appears to have been developed by Nepalese yak herders — it bears no resemblence to anything else on the Internet. It’s not standardized between districts. It’s loaded with redundant pages — depending on the district, you must sometimes click through three or four gateway pages linking to other pages, e.g. “Welcome to PACER ECF system! Click here to begin ECF.” It’s also dismally slow and far from intuitive.

    The good side of PACER is that it’s there. Granted, it’s there because someone in the Administrative Office of Federal Courts figured out that they could eliminate a huge cost by ending the need to pay filing clerks to shuffle paper. The cost of using PACER also doesn’t bother most attorneys, because they can pass it along to clients. It’s also a comparatively reasonable cost.

    In most court systems across the country, you must travel to the courthouse, ask a clerk to pull the file you want and in many cases, pay anywhere from $0.25 to $1.50 a page to have it copied.

    In Pennsylvania, where I work, the state appellate courts have a very good system for posting precedential opinions on the Web. These archives go back to the mid 90s in .PDF format. However, if you want an older opinion, an unreported or memorandum opinion or a complaint, brief or motion, you’d better be prepared to send a check or money order for $1.25 per page plus postage and not need it for two to three weeks.

    Some of the larger county court systems have electronic case filing systems. Philadelphia recently launched one. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, stands out as a shining example. But in most of the 60-odd judicial districts, the same obstructive copying charges apply and court workers are forbidden to fax anything. You’d better be good at sweet talking and convincing people to bend rules or you’ll be driving out to Norristown or some other small town county seat.

    It’s like that in many states, I believe. In one New Jersey courthouse I used to frequent, the civil records clerk used to actually hide from me to avoid having to do extra work.

    On one hand, PACER is a travesty and a dinosaur. On, the other, it’s a bold step into the late 20th century that a lot of other court systems need to make.

  4. That’s awesome.

    Wasn’t he Mr. Multicast? I always wish that hadn’t been made mostly-futile by routers; it’d be handy for lots of applications.

  5. I work in the IT department of a mid-sized law firm based in California. As soon as I read this post (and clicked through to Wired) I forwarded it around to the rest of the department to see if there was a way we could convince the Management Committee to get on this train.

    Immediate, unhesitant response: “All those PACER charges are billed to the clients. Too many potential complications. The Firm wouldn’t be interested.”

    Discussing it further, one of my colleagues says “I’m GLAD they’re charging for it — finally, a Government Agency charging for its services rather than passing on the cost to the rest of the country that has no interest in it.”

    While I understand his point of view I see that if we were to take it to its extreme we would do away with taxes and all services would become market-controlled. I’m pretty sure he’s no Randian, but I do think he might have sipped a bit of the KoolAid.

    Sorry, tangential…

    It seems that the cost of accessing the documents is so negligible after the up-front cost of printing and scanning that the courts should do this for free already. Any costs could easily be covered initially by the interested parties: prosecution wants to file a complaint? Fine — add 2 cents per pages in filing fees (billed to the client, of course) to cover scanning and labeling costs. Whoever wins the case can get reimbursed by the losing party.

  6. I can guarantee you that:
    1. The People did not pay the full cost of the documents and that’s why user fees exist
    2. There are no profits being made from this service.

  7. Suppose that you are poor and are unable to afford the ridiculous fees charged by these courts for obtaining copies? Suppose you are unable to afford an attorney and have to gather court documents yourself and make filings. I know from personal experience that the allowances there are for such scenarios are inadequate at best. The court system is deliberately designed to be the private fiefdom of avaricious lawyers who like to charge $500/hr.+ for their services, and courts are not sympathetic when it comes to the indigent. In fact, it is the indigent who are relied upon for their very existence.

    I wonder, for example, whether the law firm mentioned by #6 would be so indifferent if they had to pay the cost? See, it’s not a matte of principle for them. Why should they care? In fact, this is another way to jack up fees since someone has to be paid to go to the courthouse to collect the documents, etc.

    @#7 They don’t make a profit? That’s an absurd statement. The very concept doesn’t apply here since government entities don’t make “profit” by definition. Kinko’s, Office Depot, etc. DO make a profit, and they typically only charge .04-.09 for copies. Why does the government charge so much more???

    Free Market ideologues (whose ideas are now demonstrably defunct) would argue, based on the last paragraph, that it would be a better idea for a private group to take over this service, and I’m sure this has been done in some places. One of the problems with that idea is that companies that do such things are anti-competitive and end up charging more or at least as much as the government. It’s not like the courthouse is going to allow four companies to offer the service. It wouldn’t be practical, and even if it were, they would just price-fix.

    The main idea here has to do with quality and the availability of justice. As a general rule, the more government documents of any type are accessible and free, the freer the society.

    IF there were no way to make these documents free and accessible, the argument that We The People shouldn’t have to pay the cost might be a little valid. Many people, for example, cannot necessarily be expected to understand that there is a connection between the availability of government documents and freedom. They will only say that they want low taxes. As it is, however, there is no reason that these two things have to be mutually exclusive. With sufficient will, certainly programs like PACER could be dramatically improved, and the cost of obtaining documents dramatically lowered if not removed altogether.

    Who cares though? Certainly not the cossetted, smug, bourgeoisie. They always have plenty of reasons to justify their self-satisfaction and haughtiness, or their disregard for the poor. After all, they probably give to charity or make donations at church.

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