“PACER Pricing is Illegal”

January 15th, 2013

From Aaron Greenspan:

Princeton University Professor Stephen Schultze and his former graduate student, Harlan Yu, were aware of this situation, so they studied it. What they found was this:

“We examined the Courts’ budget documents from the past few years, and we discovered that the Courts claim PACER expenses of roughly $25 million per year. But in 2010, PACER users paid about $90 million in fees to access the system.”

There are two glaring problems with this picture. The first is that basic arithmetic reveals $90 million to be $65 million more than “the extent necessary” to run PACER, which makes the pricing, by definition, illegal. The second problem is that PACER apparently costs the government $25 million to run, and that was in 2010. Since then, revenues are way up.

Not surprisingly for government IT projects, PACER looks like most web sites did around 1994. It’s actually not one web site at all, but more like one hundred, spread across different court districts and circuits in the country. The district-level courts each have their own custom version because judges demand custom features, and no one can refuse their demands. The appellate-level courts have an entirely different and separate infrastructure, written in a different language. (Technically-inclined readers, it’s a Java applet. But really twelve different Java applets, depending on the circuit. No joke.) The Supreme Court, which can do whatever it wants, opts out of PACER entirely. Each level of PACER has separate login requirements, not to mention that PACER is separate from CM/ECF, an unbelievably badly-named system that actually lets you file documents, but under a separate login. What this means is that it is essentially impossible to follow a case from court to court, and if you even try, it is very, very expensive.

Any startup could design a system better than this for $10,000. (For a frame of reference, PlainSite, which is roughly as complex as PACER, has cost Think about $1,000 so far. (It hosts over 30GB of data from PACER and the Supreme Court andthe United States Patent and Trademark Office and the IRS.) But the courts, which complain of being broke, apparently prefer to spend $25 million or more per year on PACER instead of trying something new.

H/T Dan Katz