Aug. 6 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that U.S. court administrators have been overcharging members of the public to access court records and documents.
A three-judge panel on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington upheld a District Court ruling in favor of a group of plaintiffs who argued federal court administrators charge too much to access court records through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, service.
The plaintiffs included legal aid attorneys, journalists and others who are charged 10 cents for every page of a documents downloaded though the online system, capped at $3 per document.
The Justice Department, representing the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, argued that Congress had given the administrators broad discretion at how to use the fees generated by PACER.
But in his 32-page opinion, appellate Judge Todd Hughes agreed with the plaintiffs' contention that they are required to charge no more than what it costs to maintain the PACER system, and that excess revenues were improperly siphoned off for unrelated uses.
The "First Amendment stakes are high," Hughes wrote, adding, "If large swaths of the public cannot afford the fees required to access court records, it will diminish the public's ability to 'participate in and serve as a check upon the judicial process -- an essential component in our structure of self-government.'"
The decision upheld a District Court ruling from 2018 finding that court administrators in Mississippi improperly used fees generated by PACER to fund studies unrelated to the document system, and raised the possibility the federal judiciary could be required to pay millions in refunds to PACER users.
"The judiciary's antiquated paywall inhibits ordinary people's access to the courts, prevents journalists from covering what the courts are up to and makes important academic research difficult or impossible," the plaintiffs' attorney Deepak Gupta said in a statement.
"The next step should be to make access completely free."