Why can't Americans look up their own case-law for free?

Nicko from the Sunlight Foundation sez:

Here's a recent talk given by Princeton's Steve Schultze where he argued for the right of all Americans to access federal court records online at no charge. He made these remarks not only because it is fundamental to a democracy that the people know what their government is doing, but because his friend Aaron Swartz was improperly persecuted by the government for his efforts to ensure that all Americans can exercise this right.

As Steve explains, all federal court records are available online -- behind a paywall, on court-run PACER -- that unlawfully overcharges the public for access and subverts the reason and rationale for its existence. Court records should be free for the public to access. He is looking for Congress to act by considering this legislation, which provides for free and open access to court records. He is looking for bill sponsors, and asks that you call your elected representatives.

Steve gave this talk as part of a series of 3-minute lightning talks on transparency hosted on Capitol Hill on Monday by the Advisory Committee on Transparency, a project of the Sunlight Foundation that brings together organizations from across the political spectrum that believe in a more open government. If you like this video, please share it. Call your member of Congress. And visit openpacer.org.

Open Public Access to Court Records, For Aaron #FreePACER #OpenPacer (Thanks, Nicko!)


  1. Westlaw.  Their business model depends on their ability to make public domain caselaw difficult to access without paying them. For years they made the patently absurd assertion that the page numbers in their printed volumes of court cases were protected by copyright.

  2. The court records ARE free. All you have to do is walk into the courthouse and request to see them. To get them delivered to you electronically from the comfort of your own home or office, you have to pay to use PACER.

  3. Your title is mistaken.  Americans can look up most caselaw (if not all) for free.  There’s http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/.  Also people can go to law libraries and major public libraries, which have the different legal books reporting the cases.

    Case law are the different court opinions and decisions, not the actual docket papers that were filed by the attorneys.  Court records, such as motion papers, complaints, answers, etc. are the ones that are only available online via PACER, but as @Mike McIntyre reported, you can walk into the courthouse and request to see them…

    1.  “as @Mike McIntyre reported, you can walk into the courthouse and request to see them…”

      Which isn’t practically true, only technically true. I can’t practically walk into a New York courthouse and request to see documents if I live in LA. The courthouse argument worked for a pre-information technology society. There’s no longer an excuse for that. Not making public documents available where the public can practically access them is tantamount to making them inaccessible. It’s fine if PACER charges a nominal fee to break even. Maybe there should be a bulk discount or a waived cost for low income citizens.

      1. There is. If you use 600 pages or less, then you don’t have to pay. If you use more, then you have to pay. It’s a balance between giving the public easy and free access and having the regular and heavy users (legal professional) pay for the system.

    2. And also the Public Library of Law at http://www.plol.org/Pages/Search.aspx
      which provides “Cases from the U.S. Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals, Cases from all 50 states back to 1997, Federal statutory law and codes from all 50 states, Regulations, court rules, constitutions, and more!” – for free.I agree PACER should be free but people complaining about this issue don’t have much credibility when they are asking for “caselaw” that is already for the most part available online from multiple sources.  [For those who are considering complaining about the fact that the Public Library only includes cases from 1997, I believe PACER did not include electronically downloadable filings until later than 1997 (at least in most jurisdictions) – so this gives you more than PACER does]

  4. I agree it is ridiculous, these are public records and should be made easily accessible to the public. All courts should post all of their records online and companies like Google should build “Google Law” to make searching them easy.

    Westlaw and LexisNexus have other ways of adding value to legal research. They could provide better search tools and commentary.

  5. It’s not case law. Pacer is court records– filings, orders, etc. Case law is not Pacer. Case law is Westlaw or Nexis– appellate decisions and statutes.   And Pacer charges for making court records (to view and TO FILE) accessible from every computer. Otherwise, you can always go down and access them for free (but don’t copy because they want to charge you for copies, naturally).

  6. Do you know how much I would loooove to have PACER in Canada?

    You don’t like paying a nickel a page?

    Try $15 just to pull the godamn file? That fee is gone now, but I used to have to deal with it as a court reporter in Ottawa, Ontario.

    However, the copying fees that used to be charged on top of the pull the file fee are still there. Howabout $3.50 a page per page for a copy and NOTHING ONLINE. Sound unreasonable? Far fetched? No this is how it is in Onatario. You have to walk to the court house and do all this. You can’t keep track of cases online until it get’s to the Court of appeal stage. And then it’s just appeal book endorsements and decisions.

    I am overjoyed when there is a court story that relates to Ottawa and it’s happening in the US. Then I can deal with officials whose default setting is “It’s public. The public, even a Canadian or someone who isn’t a U.S. citizen has the right to know this stuff.” And I can follow everything online on PACER and get copies. For a reasonable fee. Maybe it’s unreasonable if you are a U.S. citizen, maybe, given the fact it’s all digital the fee should be based on file size and not pages, idunno. But, I do know that PACER would be a MASSIVE improvement if Ontario were to adopt it.

    Instead the Ontario government seems to want to make things more difficult.

    Between 2002 and 2007 I used to be able to check up on civil proceedings at a computer terminal at the Ottawa courthouse — there was only one terminal for the public to use — depending on how you input your search terms you could look for all of the newest proceedings filed, or you could look for all of the files pertaining to a particular respondent or a particular complainant. Not anymore. Now you have to have the precise name of one of the parties in the case.  So you have to know what you are looking for before you find it. Under the old system you could just say ‘hey, what’s happening in this court system we are all paying for.’

    Ok rant done. Maybe Pacer is a problem, but jeeze it would be a nicer problem for us to have in Ontario than the one we have now.

  7. …”that unlawfully overcharges the public for access and subverts the reason and rationale for its existence.”

    I would like to know more about the “unlawful” part referred to in this statement. Why does charging $0.10 per page make PACER unlawful?

    Regardless, I’m not sure that I agree that PACER should be made available for free. There are costs associated with getting the documents in shape, archiving, running the servers, etc. that need to be paid for somehow.

    I also found this:

    By Judicial Conference policy, if your usage does not exceed $15 in a quarter, fees for that quarter are waived, effectively making the service free for most users.

    For 600 pages or less per year, PACER is free.

    1.  PACER used to be 8c a page but they are going to 10c shortly.  I use PACER fairly intensively and my bill runs about $50/quarter.

    2. Cory Doctrow reprinting tendentious hyperbole without any criticism or comment as long as it serves his agenda? I’m shocked. Shocked.

      1. I suspect that Mr. Schultze’s premise is that transparency = “we should be able to download the entire PACER database for free.”

        I’m a big fan of government transparency and if PACER could be free, that would be great too. I just don’t agree that a fee of $0.10 per page equates to a big government conspiracy to keep the public in the dark.

        I do love reading hyperbolic arguments every now and then, though.

    1. Agreed.  And personally, I’d much rather pay a nominal fee for the occasional information I need, than be taxed by the government to pay for putting it ALL online for “free,” including the 99.99% of it that neither I nor anyone else will ever need to consult.

      Someone up above suggests that not having all these filings and case law online for free is “tantamount to making them inaccessible.”  That wholly illogical statement is valuable because it crystallizes perfectly the perceptual disconnect that’s at the crux of the issue.  The internet has raised a generation of folks who believe they are entitled to everything, right now, for free–and if those conditions are not being met, and indeed if any degree of effort must be expended to get what’s desired, then by golly that qualifies as inaccessibility.  It’s astonishing in its laziness and impatience, and it leads to a bunch of noses being bent out of joint for no good reason.  For nearly all reasonable purposes, the courthouse where the action is filed IS a practical access point.  An abundantly practical one.  Particularly given that not everyone has internet access, and should not be required to have internet access in order to access this information.  It’s just not practical ENOUGH of an access point for a generation that’s been brought up to believe all information is suddenly, magically costless, just because you can type a couple of words into your phone and get 400 different bad recipes for flan.  Not all information is of equal value.  

  8. The trick is that “The Law” isn’t just the statutes, it’s the combination of the Constitution, all the statutes, the regulations they authorize, and the case law and decisions surrounding those statutes and regulations in relation to themselves and the Constitution.  The case law’s exact relevance is a function of the case, and the court records are the record of that.
    Withhold any of that information from The People and they can never be truly aware of what “The Law” is, much less be able to follow it (however completely absurd that notion is today, notwithstanding).

  9. I agree with Doctorow, and disagree with a lot of commenters here. 

    This is a Democracy. That’s not a vague principle; it’s a fact.  Legal filings should be public, accessible and free.  Period. 

    For those of you who worry about the cost; it’s not so much. We all pick up the cost of roads and schools and our Military Services. This would be a very small public expense for all but the deepest Libertarian, the craziest Rural Southerner, or the crookedest Lawyer.  Let’s do it.

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