Perhaps I’m a bit naive but aren’t courts one of the slowest institutions to invest in technology?  That whole identity of being a government institution that provides justice to indigent criminals and employing lots of people to man that whole justice process seems to preclude such an investment.  Not to mention the fact that the court exists in an industry that is slow to adopt new technology in the first place.

Thus when I read about the petition to enhance PACER here, I was a bit surprised by the third request (and part of the second)

2. Make it more accessible by lowering its cost and improving its Web interface

3. Provide free PACER access to depository libraries

In 2003 a cap of $2.40 was placed on “appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, the United States Court of Federal Claims, and the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation” documents including dockets and case-specific reports (that includes those complaints and Summary Judgment motions).  How much more affordable does it get?

I understand that free is better.   (I’d love to have free parking and free postage at all times.) However, I doubt that depository libraries will kill their budget for the number of users that come to them to access PACER records.

Seriously, if we don’t even pay the base $2.40 to have access to this information what’s the point?  I know that technically these are government documents and thus should ultimately be free to one and all but the reality is that the users of these documents have a personal or business interest when accessing the information.   Thus users should make an investment into accessing the data that serves their purpose.

I support the principles that Carl Malamud is so passionate about but at some point my practical nature takes over and asks:  What is the reality of web enhancements (#2 in the petition wish list) if the there is no money invested?  Does anyone really think that USGPO or the Federal Judiciary  is going to invest in technology enhancements (no matter how affordable) for an archaic system that still functions when there is no profit motive?  And don’t forget that each court’s PACER records are maintained separately, there is no unionization of this information.  If you want that go talk to the big guns:  Lexis & Westlaw and see how affordable that is for your budget.

So I won’t be signing the PACER petition my fellow law librarians.  Despite my desire for an improved web interface because even in the hard times some data is affordable enough and useful enough to warrant a small investment by me.  If the petition had focused on improved search functions, specific case alert features or other items to overhaul the overall usefulness of the system, you would have sold me.  Price is not the issue with PACER, usability is.

Constance Ard June 24, 2009