Statement for Markup of H.R. 8235, the “Open Courts Act of 2020” – “Anyone who goes to the Supreme Court’s website can read any of the documents filed before the Court, free of charge. The same thing is true for the courts in my and Mr. Collins’s home state of Georgia. And that’s the way it should be, because the public has a fundamental right to know what goes on in its courthouses. But if you want to read most of the records of other federal courts, you have to pay a fee. The prices are like a “keep out” sign for regular people: ten cents per search, ten cents per page, and up to three dollars per document. It can cost hundreds of dollars to read the filings in just one big case. The business of the courts is important, so it should be no surprise that the judiciary’s paywall takes in between $100 and $140 million every year. That’s a lot of money taken from people who are exercising their fundamental right to access public court records. And to make matters worse, just last month a court of appeals held that the Administrative Office of the United States Courts was unlawfully using that money to fund a range of programs that had nothing to do with giving the public access to federal court records. Frankly, it’s unjustifiable. And it needs to stop. Now, imagine if we were to charge for access to the U.S. Code. Or the Federal Register. Or Congress.gov. Our courts are a vital part of our American government, and we have a responsibility to make them accessible to the rest of our society.
The judiciary’s paywall imposes unnecessary burdens on journalists, academics, and pro se litigants as they engage in the constitutionally-enshrined activities of observing and reporting on the courts’ activities or petitioning the courts for redress. This matters more now than ever before. At a time when many have concerns that the executive branch represents only some of its citizens, a democratic process limited to a select group that can participate—those who can afford it—should concern us all. But this bill is about more than just democratic ideals and transparency. It’s about changing the system to make it fairer for everyone…”