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On What People Don't Know They Want from PACER

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, August 18 2010

If you're behind on your reading of The Third Branch, the newsletter of the federal judiciary, than you might have missed this Q&A with Judge J. Richard Leonard on electronic access to judicial information by the public. Princeton's Harlan Yu points us to it, and pushes back on the results of an upcoming study, previewed by Leonard, that seems to have found that many of the users of the fee-based PACER (or, Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system are fine with the fees, and happy with the service.

That doesn't mean, suggests Yu, that the potential audience for online court records is being well served. Yu:

It may just be that those surveyed -- primarily lawyers -- simply pass the cost of using PACER down to their clients and never bear the cost themselves. For the rest of PACER users who don't have that luxury, the high cost of access can completely rule out certain kinds of legal research, or cause users to significantly ration and monitor their usage (as is the case even in the vast majority of our nation's law libraries), or wholly deter users from ever using the service.

To borrow a bit of wisdom from Don Draper, in a recent "Mad Men" episode in which he doubted the wisdom of focus grouping, "a new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to show up as an option.”

Yu goes on to argue that the judiciary should think bigger, and begin to conceive of a public for its work that goes beyond lawyers. The judicial branch, argues Yu, "needs to transition away from a one-size-fits-all approach to information dissemination."