On January 27, 2009, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, Chair of the Judicial Conference of the United States Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure. The letter raises important questions about how the Federal courts have complied with the transparency and privacy requirements of the E-Government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347).
Before beginning to even draft his 2002 bill, Sen. Lieberman and his Committee held a yearlong online survey asking the American people what they wanted to see in e-government. Improved access to information from the courts, including no-fee access to the PACER system, was a frequent response.
I was privileged to work with Sen. Lieberman’s staff at the time and AALL was a strong supporter of the 2002 Act. We were especially pleased with the following important provision on public access to PACER.
Section 205(e) of the Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913 note) so that courts “may, to the extent necessary” instead of “shall” charge fees “for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.”
This important change made it possible for the Government Printing Office and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to initiate a pilot project (now on temporary hold) allowing no-fee public access to PACER at 17 federal depository libraries. AALL’s Executive Board requested that the two organizations work together by endorsing the 2006 “AALL Resolution on No-Fee FDLP Access to PACER” and we applauded the beta-test.
Regarding PACER fees, Chairman Lieberman notes in his recent letter that,
“Seven years after the passage of the E-Government Act, it appears that little has been done to make these records freely available – with PACER charging a higher rate than 2002. Furthermore, the funds generated by these fees are still well higher than the cost of dissemination, as the Judiciary Information Technology Fund had a surplus of approximately $150 million in FY2006. Please explain whether the Judicial Conference is complying with Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act, how PACER fees are determined, and whether the Judicial Conference is only charging “to the extent necessary” for records using the PACER system.”
Privacy issues are also of concern to Chairman Lieberman, particularly regarding identity theft and the lack of redaction of personal data in some court records. His letter requests that the Court review its procedures to protect personal information in publicly available court records, as required by another provision of the 2002 Act. We are very pleased that Chairman Lieberman has requested a report to the Committee on both important issues.
AALL strongly supports no-fee public access to PACER as one of our top policy goals for the coming year. For more information on our position, please see page 3 of our “Statement to The Obama-Biden Transition Team: Public Policy Positions of The American Association of Law Libraries.”
The Government Relations Office has already begun to secure allies to assist our efforts toward making PACER available to the public at no cost. We are very grateful to Chairman Lieberman for his letter and request for information. We look forward to working with the Chairman and his staff on the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2009.
We encourage our Blawg readers to forward this posting to other interested stakeholders.
[Posted by Mary Alice Baish]