Change Coming to the Federal Court System’s PACER Tool

Just saw this posted today on the U.S. Courts website about changes being made to the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). Here’s the entire text:

AO Director Updates Congress on Progress in Case Management Technology Modernization

In a letter to key members of Congress on Wednesday, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) detailed efforts underway to modernize the Judiciary’s electronic case management system, including replacing Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), the public interface for accessing court records.

The modernization of the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system incorporates the fundamentals of today’s IT development best practice principles: user-centered design and iterative, agile development based on testing and user feedback, wrote Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the AO Director, to the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

The new case management system is being developed using DevSecOps methodologies, tools, and processes. It will be cloud-based, shifting storage and operations to the cloud, and will implement modern data standards with a data catalog and data governance framework.

The modernization is being guided by recommendations from 18F, a technology consultancy within the General Services Administration. Additionally, the AO has had discussions with the National Center for State Courts and federal agencies that recently have implemented new or upgraded enterprise systems.

The top-to-bottom modernization of the Judiciary’s case management system will “significantly improve our cybersecurity posture and benefit not just the courts, but also litigants and the public who seek to access court records,” Judge Mauskopf wrote.

One of the first steps in the modernization project will be replacing the current version of PACER with unified search functionality and other improvements aimed at making records searches easier and more intuitive and user-friendly.

The new system will be cloud-based and will make possible records searches from a central repository that crosses court boundaries nationally. Unified search functionality will eliminate the need for users to search for records at individual federal courts and it will also enable full-text searches and searches by judges’ names – features that PACER users have in the past said they favored. The new system will take advantage of modern search technologies and algorithms, including “fuzzy” search logic so that misspellings and similar words are discovered.

A 12-member Public User Group appointed by the AO this month will help provide feedback and test the new search functions, along with other internal court users of the technology.

Judge Mauskopf’s letter updated members of Congress on recent significant events related to the project and the Open Courts Act, a bill pending in Congress that addresses CM/ECF modernization and has raised some concerns in the Judiciary.

She noted that discussions over the past few months between AO staff and the bill sponsors’ staff have been “productive,” and that further discussions could result in achieving the sponsors’ objectives while alleviating the Judicial Conference’s concerns about the bill. Chief among the Conference’s concerns, she said, is “identifying a stable, predictable, and sufficient source of funding for the development, implementation, and maintenance of the new system.”

She provided the Judiciary’s analysis of a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of the potential short- and long-term costs and revenue losses of the Open Courts Act. Over a 10-year period, the CBO projected direct system costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars and documented a loss to the Judiciary of about $1 billion from the elimination of PACER fees. The estimate also identifies the need for nearly half a billion dollars in new discretionary appropriations to make up for shortfalls.

The CBO attempted to quantify the potential new revenue associated with new temporary PACER and filing fee increases described in the legislation. The budget office included expectations that the Judiciary would be able to raise current PACER fees for high-volume users by 50 percent to generate $82 million over a three-year period. Additionally, the CBO estimated over $300 million in revenues based on an authorization for the Judiciary to increase filing fees on litigants by an assumed 40 percent on average.

“The creation, application, and impact of these fees is highly speculative and depends on an intervening and potential future action by the Judicial Conference as well as the future and unpredictable behavior of fee payers, who may change their practices in significant ways in order to avoid any fee increase,” Mauskopf wrote. “Further, increasing filing fees by 40 percent would create substantial access to justice issues for litigants.”

The AO Director said she remained hopeful that the resumption of discussions with Congress about the bill will resolve remaining issues.

Here’s the letter mentioned above that was sent to Congressman Dick Durbin:

Is SCOTUS losing the respect of the public?

What’s going on with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) that makes experts wonder whether the public even trusts this once esteemed institution? Here’s a great article that gives a unique perspective on the problem from a solution-based approach.

I’ve Joined Zoukis Consulting Group

It only made sense, really. My good friend, Chris Zoukis, asked me to join his consulting firm and I had to say yes. Chris is a highly-respected author and noted expert in federal criminal law and BOP matters. Right up my alley!

My ties to Chris go back several years, when we were cowriters for Criminal Legal News and Prison Legal News magazines. We stayed in touch over the years and, once Chris finished law school, he asked me to come aboard.

How could I say no?

I’ve joined as a litigation consultant with the Zoukis Consulting Group and it’s been busy. I opened a new office in Tampa and the boxes of stuff keep showing up at the reception desk. Every single day.

You can call me direct, 813-502-1007, or request a consult with the main office in Charleston, SC, at 843-620-1100.

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me all this time and I hope to hear from you soon!

BOP Opens Direct Communications Link to Central Office for Transgender Prisoners

The BOP announced July 14, 2022, that it opened a direct email link to the Central Office in Washington, DC, to allow transgender prisoners to voice their complaints and concerns to the Transgender Executive Council (TEC). The link became active on July 5, through the BOP`s TRULINCS internal email system for prisoners and staff members.

The BOP`s memo posted on the electronic bulletin board in the prisons says the email link will be available for things such as wrongful pat-down searches of transgender prisoners, request for “gender affirming transfers” (presumably to a prison that matches one`s gender identity), requests for gender-assignment surgery, or “other accommodation requests.” However, complaints by transgender prisoners under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) or other administrative complaints should use existing lines of communication for those issues, not the link to the TEC.

“This is intended to facilitate a direct line of communication between inmates who identify as transgender and the TEC,” the memo says.

It works by sending an email to the TEC, which is a group of BOP departments (psychology, Office of General Counsel, etc.) that meets quarterly and is a division of the Central Office Branch. TEC can then respond directly to a prisoner`s request, but only if it is “directly related to the TEC.” Other requests will be ignored, the memo says.

The BOP strongly suggests that any transgender issues be addressed with staff at the local level before turning to the TEC. But the lack of help at the local level is exactly what prompted the BOP to create a direct link to the TEC at the Central Office level in the first place.

BOP Medical Center Prison Explodes with COVID Three Days After Lifting Mask Mandate

Just three days after the Federal Bureau of Prisons lifted its mask mandate at the Federal Medical Center at Devens, near Boston, COVID-19 cases exploded across the housing units. The medical isolation wing of the medical building is completely full and staff are stuffing prisoners with COVID into the Special Housing Unit (SHU), a jail of sorts within the prison with no medical personnel on shift.

It happened rather fast. On Friday (July 8), I reported that the entire medical prison was operating under “green” conditions, meaning that no masks were required anywhere in the prison (see here). By Tuesday, flocks of infected prisoners filled the medical isolation unit and staff have been sending the rest to the SHU.

Let me explain why the SHU is not a great place to put prisoners with COVID. The first thing staff does is strip search anyone going into the SHU. Then they put you in an orange jumpsuit and handcuff your hands behind your back. You`re put into a metal and concrete room with a terrible mattress and a metal toilet. You might get a Styrofoam cup. You have none of your medications or over-the-counter meds that you could buy at commissary, like Tylenol. The BOP doesn`t provide medications in the SHU, except prescription meds that medical staff deliver when needed.

You`ll sit in the SHU 10 days, even though the isolation period for COVID out in the “free world” is only 5 days. You`ll be handed food through a slot in the door and won`t have access to the phone or email. I`ve seen where some BOP prisons don`t allow mail delivery (incoming or outgoing) for anyone in isolation. It`s a very stark place, and definitely not a place where someone sick with COVID should be housed. In fact, the SHU is designed as a disciplinary unit for people who get into trouble. Regardless of why someone is in the SHU, the same disciplinary rules apply to everyone in there. That means COVID prisoners in the SHU are punished for being sick.

That`s what`s happening at the BOP`s medical prison right now. They are filling the SHU with prisoners sick with COVID-19. Meanwhile, the virus is spreading like wildfire throughout the housing units. Why? Because staff are forcing prisoners to eat in the dining hall on top of each other, mixing units. Obviously, it`s impossible to eat with a mask on. They stopped allowing prisoners to bring to-go containers of food back to the housing units to eat in their rooms in somewhat safe conditions. They cited the high cost of those to-go containers as the reason for doing requiring everyone to eat together in the chow hall.

This is reality for prisoners still struggling with COVID-19 in the BOP.

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