On February 13, 2019, U.S. Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) along with House cosponsors Mike Quigley (D-IL), Phil Roe (R-TN), and Hank Johnson (D-GA)—three of whom are lawyers—introduced HR 1164. The bill, named the Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2019, takes direct aim at the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system’s fee requirements.
HR 1164 proposes to make PACER free for all users.
PACER is a web database of federal court documents provided by the federal judiciary and intended to facilitate public access to electronic court information. Currently, access to these documents is subject to fees depending on the user, the type of file, and the quantity of those files accessed. One common example that many lawyers encounter is PACER’s $0.10-per-page fee with a cap of $3 per document. As some have documented, these nominal fees can add up to big money—even for federal government employees. There are exceptions and other limitations, but the takeaway is that there are user fees associated with this public access service.
HR 1164 proposes to make PACER free for all users. The text of the bill is unequivocal on that point: “All documents on the system shall be available to the public and to parties before the court free of charge.” And yet, while the move appears to garner widespread support, it is worth noting that this is not the first time such a bill has been proposed in Congress. Indeed, as recently as 2018, an extraordinarily similar bill, HR 6714, or the Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2018, was introduced by Collins and never got a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. The question now is will this bill have a different fate, or can we expect to see an Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2020?