PACER: Public Access to Court Electronic Records (if you have money to pay).
What is there to say about PACER? It's horridly inefficient, with each court maintaining its own servers. It has an ancient user interface, straight out of the 1980s. And it costs $0.10 per page, which doesn't sound like a big deal, at least until you run a docket search on a big class action case and accidently run up $3.00 in charges with little to no warning.
In short, it sucks. And many people, myself included, think court records should be open and free. PACER, at least for now, won't be, as it's a cash cow for the courts, but third-party solutions exist that will help you to cut down on your bill while archiving copies of the documents for public (and free) consumption.
You'll never have to look at that hideous PACER interface again, nor will you have to log in to 583 separate court sites. You can run a global search across all courts at once, then seamlessly look up dockets, case filings and more from individual courts, all from the same single interface.
This, folks, is what PACER should look and operate like. And that's not even the best part. PACERpro also stores a local copy of the docket and filings that were accessed by others, which saves you from paying for something that someone else already accessed.
The service does have its shortcomings, for now. There's no access to appellate and bankruptcy courts. Also, it doesn't seem to warn you about what searches and document retrievals will cost. For example, when I hit "refresh docket," my PACER account was tagged with a $3.00 charge. Of course, when I was running a comparison, real PACER didn't warn me about that same $3.00 charge either, until after it was accrued, so that might be a limitation to PACER itself, not PACERpro.
The old favorite, RECAP has been around far longer than PACERpro, but does many of the same things. It stores copies of court filings so that only the first person pays, it makes PACER itself more usable, etc.
The difference is in the user interface. RECAP is a browser extension that hides up in the corner of your browser. It adds a few features to PACER, as well as a RECAP link for free access to documents that are already archived, but if you're comfortable with PACER, this is basically an add-on to that horrid, dated, yet familiar user interface.
RECAP also has the distinction of being called out by the court system on multiple occasions, with a warning that fee exempt users are not allowed to use RECAP, and a separate note (republished on TechDirt) that warns that open source software, like RECAP, is a security hazard. (Sidebar: That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Open source is almost always more secure, as its code is laid bare for the Internet to examine, test, and patch.)
Why are the courts resistant to PACERpro and RECAP? Ars Tecnica notes that PACER users paid about $120 million in 2012, while the system only cost about $20 million to run, a figure inflated by the court's horridly inefficient setup (individual servers in each district, privately leased network connections, and, of course, government bureaucracy).
- Service offers a better way to search federal court records than PACER (ABA Journal)
- Courts' Sites Crashed: Troubleshooting When it Happens Again (FindLaw's Technologist Blog)
- The Legal Legacy of Aaron Swartz (FindLaw's Technologist Blog)