More PACER Drama

PACER LogoOhhhhh PACER.

I’m a little bit behind on complaining about it, so here’s the executive summary to catch everyone up: One month after they celebrated 25 years of PACER, the whole thing went down, twice in one week.

In case you missed it, the Administrative Office of Courts issued a statement in December celebrating the twenty five year anniversary of PACER. The electronic filing service was started in 1988. It ushered in the era of electronic filing for federal court documents. To me, the irony of this “celebration” is that PACER, and the local CM/ECF systems, have barely changed since then.

As usual, the Third Branch PR team leads with how PACER has made access “universal.”

“Twenty-five years ago, the vast majority of cases were practically obscure. Today, every Third Branch court is using CM/ECF and PACER,” said Michel Ishakian, chief of staff for the AO’s Department of Program Services, who oversaw PACER from 2008 to 2013. “That means that all dockets, opinions, and case file documents can be accessed world-wide in real time, unless they are sealed or otherwise restricted for legal purposes. This level of transparency and access to a legal system is unprecedented and unparalleled.”

This is technically correct – but Mr. Ishakian neglects two caveats to this statement:

1. Users have to pay to access these documents. You pay to search for them, and you pay to download them.

2. The “opinions” available on PACER are slip opinions, not officially published case law. That means they can’t be cited in court.

I know I sound like a broken record, but since the Third Branch repeatedly fails to address these points, I need to beat my drum every time they tout the glory of their PACER and FDSys databases. If you want to read an even more thorough rant, check out Sarah Glassmeyer’s  “PACER sucks” post.

A month after this 25 year announcement, PACER went down – twice. On January 24, it was down for four hours. Other sites affected included uscourts.gov. The media reported the outage first as a DDOS attack, with a group claiming responsibility on Twitter. An FBI investigation, however, found the issues to be technical – not criminal. In other words, something happened internally to bring the sites down for hours. According to Politico, however, the AOC still blames a cyberattack for the outage.

A week later, on January 31, more problems were reported with the site, and a service alert was posted on the main page.

I don’t know how big of a deal it was for those involved in federal court litigation. I know that lawyers are often under tight deadline pressure, and are accustomed to filing electronically – in some places it’s even mandated. What do you do when the whole thing goes down?

There are some alternatives for research – you can use RECAP, the free repository for PACER downloads, and Justia Dockets to search filings and get documents from important cases. Neither of those is complete, though. I suppose that you can also pay a premium to search for these things inside a legal research database. But halting online filing for four hours had to have some kind of repercussions – feel free to share yours here. If it was no biggie, let us know that too.