At its closed-door meeting at the Supreme Court today, the Judicial Conference approved measures aimed at making federal court documents and courtroom audio recordings more widely available and at lower cost.
The conference, the policy-making arm of the federal judiciary, voted to increase the number of documents members of the public can obtain free through the PACER system. Currently, users can get up to $10 worth of free documents annually, but now they can get $10 free per quarter. Anthony Scirica, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit and chair of the conference's executive committee, said that based on past usage patterns, the change would mean that 75 per cent of PACER users would pay nothing for a year of use. Scirica held a press conference at the Court following the conference meeting.
Public access advocates have been pressuring the judiciary to make access to court documents free, but Scirica said that Congress has also made it clear that "it doesn't want tax dollars to pay for this access," so some charges for high-volume requesters were retained. He said the PACER system received 360 million document requests last year.
The conference also moved to expand on a successful two-year pilot program that has made digital audio of court proceedings available through PACER at a handful of district and bankruptcy courts nationwide. The cost of obtaining the recordings will go from $26 to $2.40, and all federal courts will be encouraged to make recordings available if they already digitally record their proceedings. "It was well-received, and got high marks," said Scirica. Several appeals courts already bypass PACER by posting free audio of hearings on their Web sites, and that will not change.
Asked if the conference considered urging the Supreme Court to follow the lead of the lower courts on digital audio access, Scirica smiled and said there had been "no discussion." Though Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. presides over the Judicial Conference, it does not set policy for the Supreme Court. The high court allows same-day release of oral argument only rarely, and has denied all media requests this term.
Scirica said several members of Congress from the House and Senate judiciary committees attended the conference meeting, and the judiciary's request for conference's request for 63 additional judgeships was discussed. "We very much hope Congress will move forward" on creating the needed judgeships, Scirica said.
After two years as head of the conference's executive committee, Scirica is moving off the conference as he ends his time as chief judge of the 3rd Circuit. Asked if Judicial Conference meetings could be held in public, Scirica said the twice-yearly sessions are like White House Cabinet meetings, where "sensitive matters" are sometimes discussed by judges. "We try to respond to public interest," he said, by holding press briefings afterward and by making written minutes public as well.
Members of the Judicial Conference are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.