Opposition Grows to Removal of Public Case Files

[UPDATED] The Administrative Office of the US Courts has announced that electronic access to information lost at five federal courts would be restored.  AOC Director John Bates told Sen. Patrick Leahy in a letter Friday that they have developed a solution to restore full electronic access to all courts of appeals materials by the end of October.

Most, but not all, the 800,000 documents removed from court online files in PACER in a computer upgrade, were docket sheets, which are chronological listing of documents and events in a case.  It is like losing the index to a book.  The AOC will post a notice on PACER, but has also been encouraged to put an announcement on the widely followed policy site for the AOC, http://www.uscourts.gov.


The federal courts began removing thousands of electronic court files from public scrutiny August 11 through an “upgrade” in its electronic file management system.

The American Association of Law Libraries, journalists and public access groups are currently mounting efforts to oppose the change and seeking ways to have records restored.

With some advanced notice, groups seeking to compile and make available federal court documents could have focused on the records targeted for removal, said Brian Carver, an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information and director of the Free Law project.  He made the comment in the FOIA Project blog earlier this month.

The Public Access to Court Electronic Records System, or PACER, is a national electronic case access system that allows lawyers, journalists, librarians and the public to access case files from any federal district court, bankruptcy court or appellate court in the country.  The fee for these public records is 10-cents per page up to $3 maximum for long documents. There is no per page fee cap on transcripts on lengthy dockets.

Roughly 800,000 cases that were recently removed from PACER, out of 33 million, and groups are seeking to find ways to restore easy access, according to the FOIA blog.

In August, PACER posted an online notice that the PACER architecture would be changed to implement the next generation of case management of electronic files for the judiciary.

As a result, local legacy case management systems in five courts would be incompatible with PACER and no longer provide online access to “closed cases.”

For anyone using the PACER system, a case may be designated “closed” at the originating court but be very much alive in an appellate court.  Access to the underlying case files in the “closed” case from the original court will now become difficult.

PACER has indicated the cases will still be available once stored at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) but typically charges a minimum $64 per case to retrieve a record and 50-cents a page to copy.

Sending for the documents, copying and retrieval may take weeks.

Courts Affected

The courts affected include the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals for cases prior to Jan. 1, 2010; the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for cases prior to Jan. 1, 2008; the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for cases prior to Jan. 1, 2010 and the Washington, DC-based Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for cases prior to March 1, 2012.  In addition, it will include loss of Bankruptcy Court cases for the Central District of California in Los Angeles for cases closed prior to Feb. 1, 2001.

So far this announcement has not appeared on the USCourts.gov website where it is much more likely to draw wide attention than the PACER.gov site.


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