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Chairman Nadler Statement for the Markup of H.R. 8235, the Open Courts Act of 2020

Washington, September 15, 2020

Washington, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, during the markup of H.R. 8235, the Open Courts Act of 2020: 

"H.R. 8235, the 'Open Courts Act of 2020,' makes critical improvements to the federal courts’ records systems by requiring the judiciary to consolidate all federal court records into one system and to make those records freely available to the public.  At the outset, I want to thank the lead cosponsors of the bill—Mr. Johnson, Chairman of the Courts Subcommittee, and Mr. Collins, the former Ranking Member of the Full Committee—for their work on this issue.  I know that this was a true team effort, and I want to acknowledge your joint leadership. 

"The judiciary’s record systems have long lagged behind modern standards of accessibility and openness.  Currently, courts’ records systems are decentralized—each of the nearly 200 federal trial, appellate, and bankruptcy courts has its own system.

"After navigating these individual systems, the public is then met with a paywall, called PACER, which charges users 10 cents per page to view, download, or search for docket materials for up to $3.00 per document.

"Criticism of the courts’ current system is widespread.  Researchers, observers, and practitioners have called PACER 'difficult to understand and even more difficult to navigate,' and 'cumbersome' with a 'landmine of fees.'  It is a disservice that in today’s digital age, the public’s access to public records in public proceedings is so resource-intensive and burdensome.  This fragmented and costly approach does not reflect the modern standards of access the public deserves.

"It is indefensible that the public must pay fees—and unjustifiably high fees, at that—to know what is happening in their own courts.

"The PACER paywall, as many observers have noted, also restricts access to justice by increasing the cost of doing the research needed to competently pursue a case, inhibits innovation of legal services, and—as a group of retired Federal Judges have argued—reduces judicial transparency and the legitimacy of the courts.  It is long past time for this practice to end.

"The Open Courts Act provides a meaningful and modernized way to access court records.  Rather than having to navigate through individual court case management and filing sites, the Open Courts Act directs the judiciary to establish a consolidated system with certain standards for searchability and accessibility that meet the 21st-century public’s needs.  Under H.R. 8235, court records also become freely available to the public, eliminating the PACER paywall.  These are sensible and important steps that would bring the judiciary’s records systems into the modern age.

"The last thing I should note is that this bill is especially timely in light of a ruling last month by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that the Administrative Office of the Courts, for years, has been unlawfully using PACER fees to fund a range of projects unrelated to providing the public access to court records.  The case is ongoing, but preliminary allegations indicate that these improper expenditures could be as high as $26 million per year.  This legislation would end this practice.

"I once again thank Representatives Johnson and Collins for their leadership on H.R. 8235.  Their efforts continue the Committee’s longstanding bipartisan approach to improving the federal judiciary for the public. 

"H.R. 8235 takes a significant step forward in making the federal judiciary more modern, more open, and more accessible to the public it serves.  I urge my colleagues to support this bill."
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