Portman, Wyden, Cruz, Hirono Introduce Electronic Court Records Reform Act

Legislation Will Reform Federal Court Record System to Ensure Easy & Free Use For All Americans

June 28, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC — U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) today introduced the Electronic Court Records Reform Act to reform the federal government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), a database of federal judicial filings. The PACER is system is outdated and charges exorbitant fees to users. This bill will reform PACER to solve these problems and ensure easy and free public access to federal government court records. Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) are leading the legislation in the House of Representatives. 

“PACER was intended to create a level playing field for small-time litigants, small business, civil society, journalists, and citizens who care about transparency in government,” said Senator Portman. “But PACER, with its frustrating interface and fees, has done the opposite. The American people should have easy access to the court records of their country, and this bipartisan legislation will fix the problem once and for all by putting in place a free, streamlined system with an emphasis on security, accessibility, affordability, and performance.” 

“PACER was created to provide affordable and easy access to court records, but it’s evolved into an expensive, bureaucratic headache,” Senator Wyden said. "Ensuring our courts are both transparent and accessible is fundamental to giving all Americans equal protection under the law. The Electronic Court Records Reform Act will finally replace the current costly, unwieldy system with a modern, accessible digital records structure." 

“Expanding access and transparency to court records will serve all Americans well,” Senator Cruz said. “I am proud to join Senators Portman, Wyden, and Hirono on this much needed reform.” 

“Public records should be accessible to anyone who wants to see them – for free. PACER’s fee structure puts an unfair obstacle in the way of small practitioners, nonprofits, students, and others who need to know about the work of the federal courts. Congress should pass the Electronic Court Records Reform Act without delay so that filings, dockets, orders, and all of the work of our courts can be available to the public, rich and poor alike,” Senator Hirono said. 

NOTE:  This legislation will resolve three issues with the PACER system: 

  • PACER aggregates 319 million legal documents across 94 district courts and 13 appellate circuits, but it has no uniform way of filing, tracking, and saving case information.
  • PACER charges 10 cents for each search, and with its cumbersome search function, users can easily squander resources on incorrect searches. Moreover, once a document is found, it costs an additional 10 cents per page to download or print.
  • The E-Government Act, enacted in 2002, permits the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to impose fees on PACER, but “only to the extent necessary” to make the documents available to the public. Yet, even at 10 cents a search/page, PACER brings in $146 million in revenue annually. This figure vastly exceeds the amount it takes to operate a website and the money has been found to be used for purposes not directly related to the public access of records. 

This bill will solve these problems by requiring the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in coordination with the General Services Administration, to consolidate and harmonize all of PACER’s documents into a single system with an emphasis on security, accessibility, affordability, and performance. This includes requirements that PACER documents be text-searchable with improved search functions. The bill will also make PACER free to users.