Lack of security protections in PACER system made it vulnerable to hacking

An organization called the Free Law Project has identified a serious vulnerability in PACER, the federal courts’ online filing system. The bug permits cross-site forgery, essentially a method of capturing another user’s account information, and utilizing that information to access documents. The original account owner would be charged, but might not know it until the account statement arrives weeks later. PACER fees, which are currently 10 cents per page with a maximum of $3.00 per document, can quickly add up.

Early stories also stated that another vulnerability would allow hackers to file documents through other people’s account, compromising the integrity of the entire justice system.  PACER administrators, however, have denied that fraudulent filing was possible.  The cross-site forgery issue has apparently also been addressed.

For those interested in the specific technical details of the bug, the Free Law Project has posted what it shared with the courts here.

 

Wyoming raises court fees to pay for technology upgrades

The technology in Wyoming’s state courts is reportedly in terrible shape, ranging from extremely outdated to nonexistent. Half the courtrooms lack adequate power, and 80 percent lack digital capacity for video and videoconferencing.  In response, the state legislature has approved an increase in court fees to fund technological improvements.  The affected fees are primarily “automation fees” associated with filing a case, and moderately increased monetary penalties for a felony conviction.

 

U.S. Supreme Court (finally!) adopts electronic filing

Almost 30 years after the PACER system was implemented for the federal district courts, and more than 15 years after district court dockets were placed on the web, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will adopt its own electronic filing system.  The system goes into effect this November.

The Court’s announcement states that “Once the system is in place, virtually all new filings will be accessible without cost to the public and legal community.” I read that to mean that reviewing and downloading docket materials will be free, which would be an improvement on the costly PACER system.  Let’s hope that is what is intended.

A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system

The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article yesterday on daily life at India’s largest courthouse, the Allahabad High Court. It tells a tale of extreme delay, extraordinary inefficiency, and basic injustice stemming from a lethal combination of judicial vacancies, outdated filing systems, and lax protocols for advancing cases to resolution. Among the facts presented in the article:

  • Nearly 45% of judicial positions on the court are unfilled, due in large part to an ongoing battle between the judiciary and the other branches of government about the most appropriate methods for judicial selection.
  • On average, it takes nearly four years to adjudicate a simple commercial dispute in India — twice as long as in Brazil and more than three times as long as in the United States.
  • More than 86% of high court cases in India take 10-15 years to adjudicate.  Fewer than 5% are resolved in less than five years.
  • The Allahabad High Court receives nearly 1,000 new cases every day.  Almost half are filed by the government.  Judges on the court even have a name for newly filed cases that have not even been looked at yet — “backlog fresh.”
  • It is so unpredictable which cases will be called on any given day that one lawyer profiled has associates spread out across all the courtrooms to track if — and when — any of his 34 open lawsuits on the court’s calendar might be taken up by a judge.
  • Even though rural litigants often have to travel a whole day to appear in court, it is commonplace that their cases will not be called and another day will be wasted.
  • The system encourages delay by allowing lawyers to file an “illness slip” to postpone a hearing, whether or not they are actually sick.
  • Case records are badly misfiled–piled on floors and chairs, and intermingled by year.  In the story, a worker searched eight hours for files for the next day’s cases, and was still missing 17 of 65 by day’s end.

This is a jaw-dropping account, the paragon of “justice delayed is justice denied.” What can we make of it?

Continue reading “A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system”

The precise cost of a new judgeship

The Unified Courts of Guam have made their budget request for 2018, which includes line items for adding a new Superior Court judge.  The court system estimates that the cost of adding a new judge (which includes salary, staff, courtroom facilities, and supplies) will be $397,537.

The proposed judicial budget would make up a little over 5 percent of Guam’s overall governmental budget for 2018.

Dear fellow citizen: please don’t use bomb threats to get out of a court date

This is one of those stories that makes you wince:

Courthouse officials are using a weekend arrest in a bomb threat case to warn others not to make the same mistake.

Spartanburg County [South Carolina] Clerk of Court Hope Blackley said people sometimes will attempt to get out of their court hearings by calling in bomb threats to the courthouse, forcing the building to evacuate and shut down operations.

Such actions add to the burden on an already strained judicial system and can inconvenience hundreds of other people who have rearranged their schedules to accommodate a court appearance.

“It’s a costly, logistical nightmare first and foremost, and taxpayer dollars are being wasted,” Blackley said. “The court docket is already backed up. We need every minute we can to have court be operable. It’s a huge injustice for folks who want and need their cases to be heard.”

The courthouse can be a difficult place for many people, and it is understandable why some would feel reluctant to enter that space  After all, issues affecting personal liberty, property, and relationships are determined there on a daily basis. But that is no excuse for terrifying and disrupting the lives of hundreds of other people. My goodness.

Attorneys file federal class action lawsuit over PACER fees

In April, attorneys for several watchdog groups filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the court’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system overcharged the public for access to court records starting in April 2010.

The lawsuit seeks “an unspecified amount of damages that ‘are found to exceed the amount authorized by law,’ as well as attorney fees.” Court documents and further details on the suit from the class action attorneys can be found here.

I was notified by email that I am a member of the plaintiff class, based on periodic PACER research I have conducted since 2010. And I have been critical of high PACER fees in the past, especially when PACER is used purely for academic research.  But this is a pretty silly lawsuit.  The class action attorneys will make a tidy sum from any settlement, and the actual affected members will likely get nothing of consequence.  I would much prefer to see the courts offer PACER as a free research service, or otherwise develop a sensible, tiered payment system.