At the session entitled "The Changing Look of Government Information: Impact on Reference, Technical Services and Public Services" at the recently concluded American Association of Law libraries (AALL) conference, there was a short report about an a March 2010 decision by the Judicial Conference of the US, to proceed with a new PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) pilot project with the Government Printing Office (GPO).
Back in November of 2007, a previous pilot project was undertaken by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). "...in cooperation with the Government Printing Office (GPO), it began a two-year pilot program that offered free and unrestricted access to PACER at 17 libraries that were participants in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP)."
However,in February of 2009, "...a 22-year-old computer whiz, managed to download nearly 20 million pages of PACER documents, or about 20 percent of the entire database, before the government shut down access to all free PACER pilot accounts."
The current pilot project does not have users directly using the PACER database. Rather, users at any library with an internet connection, can access court opinions online via GPO's new FDsys content management and distribution system.
The Judicial Conference states that, "On recommendation of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, the Judicial Conference approved a one-year pilot project with the Government Printing Office (GPO), involving no more than 12 courts, to provide public access to court opinions through GPO’s FDsys system, which is an advanced, internet-based digital system that allows searches across opinions and across courts. The Conference also agreed to delegate to the Committee the authority to extend the pilot program for up to one additional year, if necessary to ensure that sufficient data is collected to evaluate the program."
Using the GPO online system FDsys, is a major step forward in providing this limited access. Unlike the previous pilot study that limited users to 17 physical libraries (!), this pilot will effectively provide anyone with an internet connection to access the FDsys-hosted opinions.
However, while expanding the points of access for public users, the pilot drastically limits what users can have access to. There are at least 94 federal district courts and at least 92 bankruptcy courts. Only allowing access to 12 among all these courts, barely 6% of the combined categories, is hardly a substantial enough incentive for most users, to actually provide a meaningful measure of actual potential public demand. The geographical location of these 12, could additionally skew the figures.
It seems that while GPO keeps trying to get the judiciary to move beyond it's walled-garden of federal court information, the judiciary seems to only make token moves that seem designed to further their own self-fulfilling prophecy of lack of public demand.
The new pilot study is worth supporting. But in the long run, it may require congressional action and funding, to have the judiciary begin to seriously act to make public court information freely avaialble to the public. GPO could certainly be a valuable partner for such an effort.