I like the ingenuity of a group of law librarians to petition the Adminitrative Office of the US Courts to improve some of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) services. (For those of you outside the US legal industry, PACER is the US Federal Court’s online Docket system, and an extremely valuable research and information tool run by the courts.)

The Petition is short and sweet, and doesn’t really ask for anything radical such as universal free access (which, some argue it should be, and others say to leave it alone, but that’s a different post, for a different time.)
Here’s the petition:

We ask the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to improve PACER by enhancing the authenticity, usability and availability of the system.
We the undersigned, urge the Administrative Office of the US Courts (AO) to make the following changes to the PACER system:

  • For verification and reliability, the AO should digitally sign every document put into PACER using readily available technology.
  • PACER needs to be much more readily accessible if it is to be usable for research, education, and the practice of law. Improved accessibility includes both lowering the costs for using PACER and enhancing the web interfaces.
  • Depository libraries should also have free access to PACER

Here’s a breakdown of what the Petition is asking:
Digital Signature — Verifying that the document is authentic should have probably been built into the system from the beginning.

Improved Interface — PACER’s interface hasn’t improved in years. Improving the end-user’s ability to find and download documents faster would reduce the cost to the end user and improve the overall usability of the system.
Free Access for Depository Libraries — The Depository Libraries have been a valuable resource both to the public and to the US Government. Giving the users of these libraries access to the PACER documents would allow citizens the access they need to court records.
These are baby steps that the Administrative Office could take to make PACER a little better for everyone. Read through some of the comments that petition signers have left, and then take the time to read the petition yourself. If you agree that the Administrative Office should make these three changes to PACER, then I encourage you to sign the petition as well.
  • #154 – Long ago I worked for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals Law Library system when PACER was just being developed. I understand the financial constraints and programming issues involved in upgrading PACER. However, I now work in a public law library serving mainly unrepresented litigants, who greatly used and benefited from PACER when it was made available for public use on a test basis. Access to these public documents should be a priority, and I respectfully urge that the AOC do whatever possible to make this happen
  • #84 – It’s time that Pacer move into the 21st Century. The improvements that have been made in regards to retrieving documents is fine but the search engine and ease of use is missing. I am also requesting along with others that Pacer reflects: verification and reliability and that the AO should digitally sign every document put into PACER using readily available technology.
  • #65 – Ours is a public library in a small town, and several of our library users are attorneys or students studying law or legal history. Often these students are studying to become lawyers or paralegals. Free access to legal websites such as PACER are important for these users of our library, as well as for the general public whom they serve or hope to be serving professionally.
  • #40 – I feel the PACER interface is deplorably outdated and complicated for the layperson. If I as a law librarian sometimes feel confused using PACER, what chance does a pro se patron have of confidently using the system?
  • #29 – I have used Pacer regularly for faculty research for several years. I work in a depository library. We have one account for a law school of almost 900 students. Law students need and deserve greater access to documents in Pacer. After all, they will be using the system in their professional lives immediately after law school. In addition, there is nothing to prove the authenticity of the documents retrieved from Pacer. Both an electronic signature and a watermark with docket source seem to be worthwhile and feasible ideas. We are at a point in time where it is possible to lower the price, increase access, and maintain security. Thank you for considering the possibilities.
  • #9 – A few things would be really helpful: 1) Offer a bulk access, flat-rate license fee. Many would pay for bulk access and update. 2) Please do a better job identifying judicial opinions. Often not tagged or mis-tagged. 3) It would be great to unify PACER in a single web application instead of different apps for each court. Justia has a nice UI for this. 4) I would also support a re-rationalization of access fees so that they are proportionate to costs. I have no problem with fees to cover the costs of maintenance, or even fees to cover costs of modernization. But it seems like costs are disproportionately high for the amount of effort currently envisioned. Thanks for your consideration!
  • #4 – Access to primary legal materials is a foundational issue for the judiciary. We cannot be a nation of laws if the proceedings of our courts are distributed at high cost and with no certificate of authenticity.