PACER at 20: Accessing Federal Courts

PACER stands for, “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” and allows a citizen to set up an account with the system to access every Federal court in the country.

Pluses:  Nearly all recent (last couple years) complaints are electronically available on Pacer.  The docket information is thorough and well presented with much the documentary information about amended complaints, responsive pleadings and court orders made available.  If you have a docket number and the name of the court, its fairly easy to find the docket.   All the information, no matter which court, is provided in the same format.  The costs to access the service are relatively small (in comparison to commercial online services).

Minuses:  Searching, searching, searching.  First, they don’t normalize entity names so if you search on “Federal Express” you won’t get all the filings that are “Fedex”.  Second, if you search by Court, you will get links with variations and then you need to click each of them to see what filings they include.  Despite all the advances made to search engine technology, none of that is reflected in PACER.  There are no suggested terms provided, or suggested spellings and the search results aren’t presented in a helpful way.  Finally, you have to pay to use the service.  Up in the pluses I state that its not expensive but I do have a question about charging for public information.  Isn’t that unfair to those without the financial resources?  PACER has its critics and one of them has established a website where he is encouraging attorneys to donate court filings that he posts for free.

News release about PACER’s twenty years.

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