The recent winter storm left millions of Texans without power or water. It shook our state to its core. As a result, Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which serves 1.5 million Texans, recently filed for bankruptcy in federal court.
What does this mean for Brazos’ customers? What about other businesses and families in our communities bankrupted by the storm? Unfortunately, the questions aren’t easy to answer because it's needlessly difficult to evaluate the federal courts and whether they operate equitably or inequitably.
What we do know is that systematic study of court records — by journalists, legal aid groups and even everyday Texans — has the potential to uncover the successes and failings of our judicial system. Yet the records aren’t kept in a way that makes that possible.
Court records, unlike other federal government records, are locked behind a paywall. It’ll cost you 10 cents per page to read them online — or even just to view search results. That means to engage in meaningful oversight, journalists would need to review thousands of records, at an unsustainable cost of time and money.
There’s a joke that navigating the antiquated system for accessing these records — known as PACER — requires more luck than money. The system’s cumbersome nature and outdated architecture are hardly user-friendly. Often searches return unhelpful information — but you pay for the results anyway.
As our state’s watchdogs, Texas journalists regularly engage in government oversight, ensuring it operates in the public’s interest. But relentless budget and staff cuts have made this kind of public-interest journalism much less common. Keeping an eye on our court system is expensive, time consuming and requires significant expertise.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We could have free and open access to court records, allowing journalists — and others — the ability to examine these documents just like nearly every other executive or legislative record.
Our team is creating an Open Knowledge Network around court records, thanks to a $5 million Convergence Accelerator Cooperative Agreement from the National Science Foundation. Our system, called SCALES, will allow users to search court records the same way you use Google.
With SCALES, anyone can quickly answer important questions about the justice system. The capacity to analyze large amounts of data holds enormous potential, but it requires free access to court records.
Making public records free makes sense. Journalists, attorneys and researchers regularly rely on federal records to hold the government accountable.
As news organizations commemorate Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative highlighting the importance of open government and public records, we urge you to tell your congressional delegation that you support the Open Courts Act, a bipartisan bill that would eliminate access fees for court records. It’s time we let a little sunshine into the federal courts.