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Federal appeals court hears arguments on charging public for access to court documents

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on Monday indicated support for a class action lawsuit filed by nonprofit organizations alleging that the federal judiciary overcharges the public for access to court documents through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER).

In 2016 three nonprofit organizations—the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center and Alliance for Justice—filed suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that PACER fees are excessive and therefore violate the E-Government Act of 2002.

On summary judgment, the district judge found that some of the expenditures went beyond Congressional authorization, but the nonprofit organizations’ interpretation of marginal costs was too narrow. The nonprofit organizations appealed this decision.

In front of the Federal Circuit, the nonprofit organizations argued that the government was only allowed to recoup the marginal costs involved with PACER. The Department of Justice argued that the suit should be dismissed because Congress had not explicitly set up a statutory damages remedy for PACER users to recover excessive costs. The judges appeared skeptical of the government’s argument.