There is no question that none of us like paying our PACER fees, particularly given that navigating the site often still feels a lot like you are back using Netscape Navigator. That said, most of us grudgingly agree that using the site (and paying the fees) is quite literally the cost of doing business as attorneys. However, PACER fees can be prohibitive for non-profit legal providers who have minimal budgets and cannot pass costs along. Those fees get even more problematic for nonprofit groups that use PACER for broader research.
Several of these nonprofits have now sued the government, alleging that the PACER fees are higher than they are allowed to be by law and are basically subsidizing other projects.
The groups cite the E-Government Act of 2002, which authorizes PACER fees necessary “to reimburse expenses in providing these services.” The suit says that millions of dollars in PACER online access fees have been diverted to other courthouse projects instead. The system was once a dial-in phone service and became an Internet portal in 1998. Fees began at 7 cents per page, rose to 8 cents, and now sit at 10 cents.
“Rather than reduce the fees to cover only the costs incurred, the AO instead decided to use the extra revenue to subsidize other information-technology-related projects—a mission creep that only grew worse over time,” the suit (PDF) claims. Citing government records, the suit says that by the end of 2006, the judiciary’s information-technology fund had accumulated a surplus of $150 million with $32 million from PACER fees [PDF]. When fees were increased to 10 cents a page in 2012, the amount of income from PACER increased to $145 million, “much of which was earmarked for other purposes such as courtroom technology, websites for jurors, and bankruptcy notification systems,” according to the suit.
You can read the entire complaint here.