The policy-making body of the federal judiciary wants U.S. judges to limit how often they seal entire civil cases. In addition, the public access fee for all records is rising and other court fees are going up.
On Tuesday, the Judicial Conference of the United States voted on various administrative and policy issues impacting the nation’s federal court system, something that happens twice a year. Chief Judge Richard Young in the Southern District of Indiana is one of the 26-members of that conference.
For the first time since 2005, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) fee is rising by 25 percent, from 8 cents to 10 cents per page. The judiciary’s electronic records programs – PACER and the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Filing system – are funded entirely through user fees, and the increase is needed in order to continue and even expand online record access.
Implementing the 2-cent hike is expected to take at least six months, and local, state, and federal government agencies will be exempt from the increase for three years because of the impact it could have on public access to court records. PACER users who don’t accrue more than $15 in charges per quarterly billing cycle would not be charged a fee – a five dollar increase from the current exception amount. A total of 75 to 80 percent of all PACER users will pay no fee.
Other court fees are also rising because of inflationary pressures, including record searches and retrievals as well as attorney admission fees. The increases are expected to generate about $10.5 million more in fee revenue for fiscal year 2012.
Another cost-sharing move implemented Tuesday involves bankruptcy judges in new courthouses or construction settings, where those jurisdictions with three or more bankruptcy judges can use one courtroom for every two judges. In situations where a location has an odd number of judges, the number of courtrooms allotted will remain at the next lower whole number. This follows similar policies in the past two years for senior judges and magistrates.
Aside from those fee hikes, the Judicial Conference urged greater public access for civil cases by instructing judges to follow a new policy on sealing files only in extraordinary circumstances as a last resort. Any order sealing an entire civil case should contain findings justifying that action, and the seal should be lifted when the reason for sealing has ended, the policy says. Judges should first explore narrower alternatives, such as blacking out information or sealing particular documents, and the conference endorsed modifying the case management system to remind judges to review cases under seal each year.
No one case or jurisdiction prompted the change, but the conference members said there was a consensus that federal judges have for awhile been sealing entire civil cases too often.