One of the great benefits of online technology is who quickly and thoroughly it has disrupted old ways of doing business. Except for the federal courts which still maintain an antiquated paywall around court filings – effectively keeping them out of the public eye.

Some in Congress hope to change that with the Open Courts Act of 2020. But standing in the way? The court system, which is throwing every strawman argument it can muster in the way of freeing the federal court records from their digital prison:

…the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts—an administrative agency within the federal judiciary—has come out against the current bipartisan version of the bill, even having federal judges “[call] lawmakers to express their concerns.”

What is the problem? First, according to the Director of the A.O., making public court records free “would be a ‘financial windfall’” for legal-database companies like Westlaw and LexisNexis. Second, the A.O. claims reforming PACER is too expensive, costing “at least $2 billion over 5 years.” Last, the A.O. argues that any appropriations gaps could lead to increasing filing fees, serving as an “outright barrier” to plaintiffs filing in federal court.

According to the R Street Institute, the courts rake in roughly $150 million per year from those downloading court documents…from a system taxpayers bought and paid for.

As for the billions it would supposedly take to modernize the PACER system, that’s quite an exaggeration:

In a recent letter, several former government technologists and I.T. experts explained that “under no circumstances” creating a new system envisioned by the Open Courts Act would cost what the A.O. claims. Instead, they estimate the new system would only cost $10-$20 million over three years to build. This modernization is also a wise long-term investment. After all, “costs to store and retrieve data [have] dropped 99.9% since PACER’s 1998 debut.” The Open Courts Act “will cost taxpayers a fraction of what the judiciary currently pays to maintain the status quo.”

So what’s really at work here? Information wants to be free – and all that free information increases accountability and transparency. Courts are famously reluctant to allow unrestricted public access to proceedings, and keeping court documents behind a paywall is just another way to keep the taxpaying public in the dark about what their courts are doing.

That needs to change.

Image Credit: Brian Turner / CC BY (