Want to look up a federal-court case, read the indictment or lawsuit, evaluate what the prosecutor and the defense attorney had to say, or review a judge’s decision?
Everyone now has access to many federal court documents, and you don’t have to be an attorney or a court reporter to access them. The documents are in a system called “PACER,” which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records.
Just go to pacer.gov and register.
Documents cost 10 cents per page, with a maximum charge of $3 per document, although the cap does not apply to name searches, reports that are not case-specific and transcripts of federal court proceedings.
Best of all, for the occasional user, you will not owe a fee unless your account accrues more than $15 of usage in a given quarter. If you accrue less than $15, your fees are waived for that quarter. Federal court opinions on PACER are free.
Three-fourths of PACER users do not pay fees for access because their usage does not meet the billing threshold.
“The PACER program operates entirely on user fees,” says Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Court Administration in Washington, D.C.
The system was authorized by Congress in 1991. “It was a gradual rollout to district courts and bankruptcy courts,” Redmond said. “By 2007 it was nearly universal.”
Years ago, reporters at the Star Tribune would have to trek over to the federal courthouse to see the latest court filings. Today, we just turn on our computers and log onto PACER.
The system has more than 1.8 million accounts and processes more than 500 million requests for information annually.
Most of my workdays start by checking PACER to see what federal court rulings have been issued and what new lawsuits have been filed.
The federal docket is jammed full, so I don’t always spot the most interesting cases. I rely on sources and tips.
If you know about a case that you believe merits public attention, please let me know about it.