The René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

The federal court system that allows people to view documents online has been under fire this year for charging the public 10 cents a page to see records.

The New York Times called the 10-cent fee “preposterous” and last month described efforts underway to push for free access for all, particularly as the cost to run the system, which is called Pacer, is reportedly just a fraction of what the feds raise in viewing fees. The New Republic reported in January that Pacer “brought in more than $146 million in fees during the 2016 fiscal year, even though it cost just over $3 million to operate.”

In Alameda County, viewing court documents is even more expensive. The Alameda County Superior Court system charges $1 a page, dropping to 50 cents after five pages, to view civil court filings. Don’t know the case number and want to search by party name? That costs $1. The fee per document is capped at $40, but it can certainly add up if you’re in the business of tracking and reporting on civil lawsuits.

In light of the national brouhaha over Pacer, Berkeleyside wondered how much Alameda County makes from its online system, which is called DomainWeb, and how much that system costs to run. We submitted a Public Records Act request to find out.

Over the past five full fiscal years, Alameda County brought in about $1.93 million in DomainWeb fees, county staff reported, from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2018. The bulk of that, about $1.86 million, has come in since July 2014. But the county ultimately said it was “impossible” to provide details about the cost of the system due to “the leveraged and interdependent nature of the IT technology.”

The county began charging $1 a page to view civil case filings in July 2014. Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter Thomas Peele, of the Bay Area News Group, wrote at the time that the new fee was “effectively cutting off access to court records for people who can’t afford them and trampling First Amendment rights of access.” One local attorney launched an online petition to ask the courts to reconsider the fee, but it didn’t gain much traction.

Chad Finke, the chief executive officer of the Alameda County Superior Court, told Berkeleyside last week that several inquiries have come in this year about DomainWeb fees. It was no surprise after the Pacer stories began making the rounds, he said.

Finke explained that Pacer was created with ample federal funding. California, with its 58 independent trial courts, was a different matter. Each one has its own case management system to oversee, he said. Questions of what would be available and whether there would be online access were up to local agencies to decide.

“We were all just left on our own to figure it out,” said Finke.

Alameda County Superior Court created the Domain case management system nearly 20 years ago, he said. In 2013 or 2014, then-Gov. Jerry Brown pushed forward on a number of statewide budget cuts, including in the courts. It left a gap as local jurisdictions struggled to make ends meet by cutting service hours and increasing fees.

Finke said Alameda County Superior Court, which was then under the management of Berkeleyan Leah Wilson, realized it needed to do its part to boost revenue before asking for the state for help. In 2014, the county estimated it would cost nearly $200,000 a year to host and maintain DomainWeb. There are also costs associated with scanning documents. Meanwhile, the system has brought in an average of more than $460,000 over the past four fiscal years.

Finke said the biggest challenge is the age of the system: “Much like a 20-year-old car, it costs us a lot at this point to keep Domain up and running at all.”

The system has also been limited by the software it relies on to operate, he said. Until last year, Domain used a very old version of Adobe Acrobat to view images. When that software went down, the county had to spend a significant amount of money to modernize the coding, Finke said. Domain also has been running on a very old version of Microsoft Windows. The programming to update that is no small task either, he said.

And, if costs were justified in 2014, they are likely just as high now, he added, due to all the maintenance challenges with the old system.

“It’s ridiculously expensive to keep this 20-year-old system running at all,” Finke said. “We’re not going to increase fees. But we’re not going to decrease them either.”

For those who monitor civil cases regularly, or become aware of a new lawsuit quickly enough, the online system does offer free access to the original complaint for the first five days. Members of the public can also use courthouse computers to view documents, but many of those are in poor shape and hours are limited. Need copies? That costs 50 cents a page.

On the bright side, Finke said, the county plans to transition to a completely new case management system within the next two years. That will prompt a reassessment of all the fees.

“The things that are driving our costs right now will be totally, totally different then,” said Finke.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...