Courts to restore deleted archives, may fix much-maligned PACER system

PACER, the federal courts’ online record system, works about as well as, and is about as popular. Still, even the most jaded users were aghast to discover in August that PACER had abruptly purged years of digital records, including documents from important appeals courts and the bankruptcy court in Los Angeles, and suggested that users could obtain paper copies from courthouses instead.

Now, after an outcry in the legal community and demands for an explanation by the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (D-Va), PACER’s overlords say they will make it right — sort of.

On Friday, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts told the Washington Post that the agency plans to restore the missing archives by October, and that “a new user interface also is planned, and further improvements are being made in searchability of data.”

This will provide some comfort to the lawyers, scholars, journalists and others who rely on PACER every day to do their jobs. But the legal community had best take the promise of a “better interface” and other improvements with a grain of salt.

That’s because the agency spokesman’s comments to the Post didn’t address the more systemic problem with PACER: For years, it has charged users an outrageous amount of money (it currently costs $3 for a 30 page PDF document), but has failed to put any of that money into improving a system that looks and acts like an artifact from the mid-1990s.

True reform will only come when Senator Leahy and the judges who oversee the court system address the way the IT infrastructure is run. If they are looking for advice, they could always turn to Alex MacGillivray, who was a long time lawyer for Google and Twitter — and is now the White House’s new deputy Chief Technology Officer.