House of Representatives Passes the Open Courts Act of 2020 to Make PACER Free

The United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 8235: the Open Courts Act of 2020 on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. The bill seeks to provide free access to federal court documents filed on PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). The federal judiciary opposes the bill, citing “devastating budgetary and operational impact on the Judiciary.”

PACER currently requires 10 cent fees per search and 10 cent fees per page, with a $3 cap on documents. The current system does, however, waive the first $30 of usage. The Open Courts Act of 2020 would require creation of a new PACER system free for public use. The bill would also change the fee structure for large-scale users such that fees would be applied to large-scale users who accrue $6,000 or more in fees. Under the Open Courts Act of 2020, the federal judiciary must implement the new system within five years. Further, the bill includes measures for review of the system, such as requiring reports from the Government Accountability Office and allowing public comment for the new fee schedules.

The bill was passed by voice vote under suspension of the rules, led by sponsor Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). Before the floor vote, Johnson said, “Technology has become essential to preserving our first amendment rights by helping ensure meaningful access to justice and court records.  . . It’s past time that we bring our federal court record system into the 21st century.” Administrative Office of the Courts Director James Duff wrote a letter in opposition to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Monday, December 7, 2020, citing “devastating budgetary and operational impact on the Judiciary and our ability to serve the public.”

A letter from twenty executives of legal technology companies and online information providers was signed and delivered to Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday, December 7, 2020. The letter, intended to be advisory and not lobbying, cites multiple benefits in favor of the bill. Some of the benefits mentioned in the letter include the improvement in quality and lowered cost of legal services to lawyer and clients, the invigoration of the legal technology ecosystem, a shift and minimization in maintenance costs and fees, creation of American jobs, and second order access to justice improvements for all Americans.

Disclosure: Justia provides the community with open and free access to the law. We strongly believe that the law belongs to all of us and that everyone should have access to the laws that touch and affect our lives. Justia’s CEO, Tim Stanley, is a signatory of the letter sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Additional Reading

House Passes Bill to Make PACER Free as Judiciary Opposes (1), Bloomberg Law (December 8, 2020)

20 Legal Tech Executives Write Speaker Pelosi In Favor Of Open Courts Act, LawSites (December 7, 2020)

H.R. 8235, the Open Courts Act of 2020,

Tech Leaders – Open Courts Act Letter