The decades-old Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) system crumbled under predictable strain and repeatedly failed to deliver timely information Friday afternoon, as thousands of end users were desperately trying to download various documents related to the unprecedented FBI raid in early August on the former president. donald trumpof the Mar-a-Lago domain.
A few minutes before noon, American magistrate judge Bruce E. Reinhart primed the pumps by issuing another round of orders to unseal the redacted probable cause affidavit and a collection of associated documents that were used to legally substantiate the search and seizure warrant at the 45th president’s Palm Beach home, in Florida.
After that, it was off to wacky errands, and users refreshing the outdated federal infrastructure soon found themselves prone to “object not found” errors. Many users have reported slow wait times, similar to dial-up; others couldn’t even load the home page.
“The Deep State still runs on Windows 95”, national security attorney Bradley P. Moss joked in an email to Law&Crime.
Notably, our own reporters did little better than anyone else in quickly verifying the contents of the long-awaited documents in question – though eventually the fervor died down and the strain on the system was lightened enough that the highly redacted files are uploaded.
“Everyone is chomping at the bit (some say chomping) to get their first taste of what’s in the search warrant, so it’s no surprise that PACER is unable to handle the high demand,” former attorney, current criminal defense lawyer and legal analyst Law&Crime Network Julie Rendelman explained in an email before adding in parentheses: “To be clear, PACER is a nightmare to use even when there is no frenzy to read particular documents.”
While few were surprised by the failure of the antiquated system in the face of increased demand, the fact of the downtime was not welcome.
“Our democracy is based on transparency and that is particularly about understanding what our government is doing,” prominent whistleblower lawyer Marc Zaid says Law&Crime. “Nothing speaks to this more than being able to learn about legal actions where the full power of executive power is exercised over individuals, regardless of their status. But in the 21st century, this transparency is intertwined to technology and a failure by the United States and government to ensure that public demand does not overwhelm systems like PACER, especially when it can be anticipated, is incredibly disappointing.
Under current law, the United States Judicial Conference, which is administered by the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court John Roberts, PACER charges 10 cents per page for most searches. According to the operating status of the system, PACER user fees are intended to “reimburse expenses incurred in providing [PACER’s] pay-as-you-go functionality generates millions of dollars a year for access to public records. Launched in 1988 as a stand-alone feature in libraries, PACER moved to the World Wide Web in 2001. The interface is decidedly a Web 1.0 relic, and the user experience for legal scholars, whether new or seasoned, can be intimidating.
According to free bill, more than two million people “viewed and clicked on a link” on the group’s popular CourtListener website within an hour of the affidavit’s release. CourtListener is basically a free and insecure version of PACER that pulls data from the official government source when registered users seek to retrieve documents from the original and install the browser plug-ins necessary to run the system .
CourtListener has become a PACER-adjacent critical site for observers and researchers, as the original’s lackluster performance is often criticized as a less-than-stellar example of what might otherwise pass for government efficiency.
In recent years, there has been a slight effort to reform PACER by making it free and modernizing the search functions.
Twitter was inflamed with criticism and comments about the accident:
2. Be free
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) August 26, 2022
I don’t pay for PACER. Lol. Also PACER should be free. Also PACER just crashed.
— Elie Mystal (@ElieNYC) August 26, 2022
Who runs PACER? pic.twitter.com/ps6aXTQAbM
— Mr. Newberger (@jeremynewberger) August 26, 2022
PACER can’t handle all this excitement pic.twitter.com/9L1ivVuXPx
— Andrew Goudsward (@AGoudsward) August 26, 2022
At the time of this writing, PACER was back up and running – if still a bit slow to respond to some users’ requests.[photo illustration via Aaron Keller/Law&Crime]
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