The Open Courts Act: Modernizing PACER and Realizing Criminal Justice Reform – Josh Blandi Writes in Above the Law

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The Open Courts Act: Modernizing PACER and Realizing Criminal Justice Reform – Josh Blandi Writes in Above the Law

With the American Rescue Plan now signed into law, the United States Congress has a host of other pressing issues to tackle on its legislative agenda, and chief among them should be the passage of the Open Courts Act (OCA). 

We’re thrilled to share UniCourt’s CEO, Josh Blandi’s most recent article that was published in Above the Law. Josh’s article, “The Open Courts Act: Modernizing PACER and Realizing Criminal Justice Reform” explores why the OCA should be prioritized in 2021, the implications it carries for bringing PACER and federal courts into the future, and how the OCA is a necessary step forward for meaningful and substantive criminal justice reform. 

Here below is an excerpt from Josh’s article in Above the Law:

In late 2020, H.R. 8235, the Open Courts Act of 2020 (OCA), passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives, but without any further action in the U.S. Senate last year, the promise of the OCA to finally make federal court data freely available to all still remains elusive.

While it’s unclear where the OCA sits on the docket for the 118th Congress, the reason for bringing it to the forefront is as compelling as ever: public access to the federal court data locked behind PACER’s paywall is a necessary and vital ingredient for improving access to justice and driving data-based criminal justice reforms. 

It’s simply too costly for lawyers, legal tech companies, advocates, activists, and academics to pay the millions of dollars needed to access all of the court data and documents in PACER to fully investigate disparities in the legal system, develop new technologies targeting injustices, and make data-driven recommendations to improve our system of justice. 

In this article, we’ll explore some of the more compelling arguments for pushing the OCA forward as a top priority in the 118th Congress, detail what it would mean for modernizing and streamlining PACER, and how it can directly inform and impact criminal justice initiatives.

Modernizing and Streamlining PACER

When it first came into being, PACER offered an innovative step forward for federal courts to track cases and provide remote access to court documents and data over the internet. But as it stands now, PACER’s fee structure, its Case Management/Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) system, and its search and access options are bloated and outdated.

Directly before the bipartisan passage of the OCA in the House, UniCourt, along with several other leading legal data and legal research providers, including Fastcase, Docket Alarm, Casetext, Justia, Gavelytics, Trellis Research, and others, signed onto a letter delivered to the U.S. Speaker of the House outlining background information regarding the OCA. 

As we noted in our letter, “PACER operates wastefully, with hundreds of different software services in courthouses across the nation,” and “without critical updates since the days of the early internet, the system is straining badly to keep up with usage.” Having myriad, separate CM/ECFs across our federal courts has created not only a complex and expensive system to maintain, but it has also made uniform standardization of court data more meaningfully difficult across jurisdictions. 

Beyond making court data freely accessible for all, the OCA’s real cornerstone is the unambiguous mandate to update, centralize, and streamline PACER to provide full text search, to make documents automatically available upon receipt, and to “develop, deliver, and sustain… one system for all public court records.” 

You can read the full article here on Above the Law.

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