Statement for Markup of H.R. 8235, the “Open Courts Act of 2020”

September 15, 2020
Speech

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. 200 Capitol Visitor Center

I move to strike the last word.

Thank you, Chairman Nadler, for bringing this important bill before the Committee. And I’d like to thank the former ranking member of this Committee, my Georgia colleague Doug Collins and the co-lead on this bill, for his partnership on working to make federal court records freely accessible to all Americans.  

Anyone who goes to the United States Supreme Court’s website can read any of the documents filed before the Court, free of charge. The same thing is true for the state courts in mine and Rep. Collins’ home state of Georgia, and indeed in every state and local courthouse throughout the land.  And that’s the way it should be. The public has a fundamental right to free access to the public documents in the courthouse, because those documents enable the public to see what justice looks like on paper. Papers filed in the courthouse are a record of what goes on in the public courthouse.  

But unfortunately if you want to read the public records filed in the federal courts other than the U.S. Supreme Court, you have to pay a fee. And the fee is an expensive one. The prices are like a “keep out” sign for the little guy: 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 federal courts extract between $100 and $140 million every single year from folks looking online to see what public documents have been filed. In other words, the federal courts take in a lot of money from folks going on line to see what justice looks like in the federal court system. $100 to $140 million per year is 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 unconscionable, it needs to stop, and that’s exactly what the Open Courts Act of 2020 will do. Once it is passed and signed into law, the Open Courts Act will abolish the requirement that fees be paid to entitle a person to look at public documents filed in federal courthouses. The public will be able to view public documents on line, for free

We don't charge folks to access to the U.S. Code. There is no charge to view the Federal Register. You can look at the legislation Congress passes for free, by going to Congress.gov.  Our courts are a vital part of our American government, what goes on in the federal courthouse is public, and Congress has a responsibility to ensure that public records in the public federal courthouses be accessible for free to the public.

Forcing the public to pay for access to public records on file in public courthouses 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, especially the little guy.. You know, after I graduated law school, I made the decision to strike out on my own. I hung out a shingle and dedicated my legal career to fighting for the little guy.

When I think of young lawyers striving to start their own business in today’s legal economy and the non-lawyers looking to represent themselves pro se, I remember how hard those first years were. This muscle memory—the feeling of working hard just for the right to work hard — is what I try to keep in mind when I’m here in DC legislating. That’s why I'm proud to offer the Open Courts Act of 2020. Convenient access to public records in federal courthouses shouldn’t be a privilege just for the wealthy few and their silk stocking, tassel shoe-wearing corporate lawyers. Young attorneys who want to use their law degree to make a difference deserve the same access to the federal court system as their wealthy corporate counterparts.

I also want to thank the Judicial Conference for their testimony and feedback on this bill and its predecessors.  The language in H.R. 8235 was drafted to reflect that input, and I look forward to continue working with them as we move forward.

Thank you again, Chairman Nadler, for bringing this bill to committee for markup, again I want to thank former Ranking Member Collins on his persistence, dedication and hard work on this legislation, and I encourage my colleagues to join us and vote to pass this bill.

I yield back.

 

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