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No Appeal on PACER Fee Exemption Decision

Courthouse News Service posted a story about journalists losing a court case on PACER fees. The journalists were from a non-profit organization, which can usually apply for a PACER fee exemption. However, they’re also journalists, and a new policy note attached to the 2013 fee schedule change warned against fee exemptions for journalists.

The note states:

Courts may exempt certain persons or classes of persons from payment of the user access fee. Examples of individuals and groups that a court may consider exempting include: indigents, bankruptcy case trustees, pro bono attorneys, pro bono alternative dispute resolution neutrals, Section 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations, and individual researchers associated with educational institutions. Courts should not, however, exempt individuals or groups that have the ability to pay the statutorily established access fee. Examples of individuals and groups that a court should not exempt include: local, state or federal government agencies, members of the media, privately paid attorneys or others who have the ability to pay the fee. [emph. added]

Unfortunately, the note is making a rather dated assumption that all journalists work for the Washington Post, when in actuality, many journalists work for small nonprofits who don’t have a great deal of cash on hand.

Problems with fee exemption language aside, what stood out in this case was the court’s aside on the fact that there really is no way for an individual or organization to appeal a PACER fee decision. As Judge O’Scannlain noted at the beginning of his opinion:

I write individually to acknowledge “the elephant in the room”: to whom does one go for review when an application for an exemption from PACER fees has been denied?

Yes, indeed: who do we go to when appealing a PACER fee exemption decision? Considering how expensive PACER is, and how the costs can quickly escalate because of arbitrary charging for almost all activity, entities can find it extremely expensive to access court documents via the application. Yet many of the entities serve the needs of the community when accessing the documents, and do so without generating a profit. So, where do these entities go when a fee exemption decision doesn’t go their way?

Evidently, as things now stand, nowhere. At the end of O’Scannlain’s opinion, he wrote:

PACER fee determinations are just one of the “increasing numbers of administrative responsibilities” being assigned to district courts “that are not subject to review by appeal.”….

Because (as the opinion discusses) there is “no right of formal appeal” to contest the amount of a Criminal Justice Act fee award, Congress decided to create an administrative “review process separate from the traditional right of appeal.” In re Smith, 586 F.3d 1169, 1173 (9th Cir. 2009) (explaining that “excess fees must be approved both by the presiding judge and the chief circuit judge or his delegate”).

Assuming ordinary PACER-fee determinations are not reviewable by the judiciary’s administrative apparatus, it will be up to Congress to decide whether to fashion an appellate review mechanism, or whether to leave them within the exclusive purview of district courts.