Judicial records are public documents that are supposed to be freely available to the public. But for two decades, online access has been hobbled by a paywall on the judiciary's website, called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which charges as much as 10 cents per page. Now Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) has introduced legislation that would require that the courts make PACER documents available for download free of charge.
The PACER system has been on the Web since the late 1990s. To avoid using taxpayer funds to develop the system, Congress authorized the courts to charge users for it instead. Given the plunging cost of bandwidth and storage, you might have expected these fees to decline over time. Instead, the judiciary has actually raised fees over time—from 7 cents per page in 1998 to 10 cents per page today. Even search results incur fees. The result has been a massive windfall for the judiciary—$150 million in 2016 alone.
Critics like the legal scholar Stephen Schultze point out that this is not what Congress had in mind. In 2002, Congress required that the courts collect fees "only to the extent necessary" to fund the system. It obviously doesn't cost $150 million per year to run a website with a bunch of PDFs on it. Despite that, federal courts have used PACER revenues as a slush fund to finance other court activities. For example, one judge bragged at a 2010 conference about using PACER funds to install flatscreen monitors and state-of-the-art sound systems in court rooms.