Legal Technology

Pacer fees shouldn't have been spent on courtroom technology, federal judge says

  • Print

The federal judiciary violated federal law when it used Pacer fees for courtroom technology and other projects that don’t provide the public with access to information stored in the courts’ electronic docketing system, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of Washington, D.C., took a middle ground in her decision on Saturday in a class-action suit that contends Pacer fees violate federal law because they exceed the actual costs of providing the records, the National Law Journal reports.

Huvelle disagreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the E-Government Act of 2002 limits Pacer fees to the marginal cost of running Pacer. But she also rejected the government’s contention that Pacer can be used to fund any payment related to disseminating information through electronic means.

Rather, the statute allows using Pacer fees for services that provide the public with access to information stored in the docketing the system, Huvelle said.

Using that interpretation as a guide, Huvelle said the fees shouldn’t have been used to pay most of the judiciary’s expenditures for courtroom technology, for a juror-information web page, for electronic notices sent to victims of violent crime, and for a study that provided software to the state of Mississippi for electronic case access.

The only courtroom technology expenditure that might be a permissible use of Pacer fees is digital audio equipment that allows recordings of court proceedings to be made available on Pacer, Huvelle said.

The federal courts collected $920 million in Pacer fees from the beginning of fiscal 2010 to the end of fiscal 2016, the period at issue in the case. During that time, the judiciary spent about $185 million on courtroom technology, $9.4 million on web-based jury services, $3.7 million on victim notification, and $121,000 for the Mississippi study, Huvelle said.

The suit was filed by the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice. Huvelle certified the case as a class action in January 2017.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.