WASHINGTON — The federal judiciary has built an imposing pay wall around its court filings, charging a preposterous 10 cents a page for electronic access to what are meant to be public records. A pending lawsuit could help tear that wall down.

The costs of storing and transmitting data have plunged, approaching zero. By one estimate, the actual cost of retrieving court documents, including secure storage, is about one half of one ten-thousandth of a penny per page. But the federal judiciary charges a dime a page to use its service, called Pacer (for Public Access to Court Electronic Records).

The National Veterans Legal Services Program and two other nonprofit groups filed a class action in 2016 seeking to recover what they said were systemic overcharges. “Excessive Pacer fees inhibit public understanding of the courts and thwart equal access to justice, erecting a financial barrier that many ordinary citizens are unable to clear,” they wrote.

The suit accuses the judicial system of using the fees it charges as a kind of slush fund, spending the money to buy flat-screen televisions for jurors, to finance a study of the Mississippi court system and to send notices in bankruptcy proceedings.

The federal judiciary’s budget is about $7 billion. Fees from Pacer generated about $145 million in recent years, or about 2 percent of the total.

Judge Scheindlin said Pacer fees were particularly harmful to litigants who represent themselves, to academic researchers who want to explore systemic issues like sentencing disparities and to journalists at smaller news outlets.

There is one shining exception to the federal judiciary’s hostility to free electronic access to its records. In late 2017, the Supreme Court started its own electronic filing system, making virtually all documents filed with the court available online at no cost.

“The Supreme Court’s system is terrific, and it’s a model for how courts can do this,” said Deepak Gupta, a lawyer for the groups challenging the Pacer fees. “It demonstrates that there isn’t any practical obstacle to making filings available for free.”

Pacer does make some exceptions to its 10-cents-a-page charges. Judicial opinions are free. For other documents, there is a $3 cap. People whose fees are less than $15 in a quarterly billing cycle are charged nothing.

Courts also have some discretion to waive the fees. Curiously, they are generally prohibited from exempting “members of the media.”

That policy is bad for democracy, said a brief filed on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 27 news media groups, including The New York Times. “As news outlets across the country face leaner budgets,” the brief said, “few can readily afford daunting fees for court records, especially independent journalists and community news media companies.”