Activist Works To Make Federal Court Files Online, Searchable


Pacer, the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, was designed in the bygone days of screechy telephone modems. Cumbersome, arcane, and not free, it is everything that Google is not, says the New York Times. Some open-government activists have teamed up to push the system into the 21st century by grabbing enormous chunks of the database and giving the documents away, to the great annoyance of the government. “Pacer is just so awful,” said Carl Malamud of “The system is 15 to 20 years out of date.” Pacer takes information Malamud believes should be free – government-produced documents are not covered by copyright – and charges 8 cents a page. Most of the private services that make searching easier, like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, charge far more, while relative newcomers like,, and, offer some records cheaply or even free. Even the seemingly cheap cost of Pacer adds up, when court records can run to thousands of pages. Fees get plowed back to the courts to finance technology, but the system runs a budget surplus of some $150 million.

Malamud, using $600,000 in contributions, bought a 50-year archive of papers from the federal appellate courts and placed them online. By this year, he was ready to take on the larger database of district courts. Those courts, with the help of the Government Printing Office, had opened a free trial of Pacer at 17 libraries. Malamud urged fellow activists to go to those libraries, download as many court documents as they could, and send them to him for republication on the Web, where Google could get to them. On Sept. 29, the government stopped the program “pending an evaluation.”

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