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Federal court system moves to put criminal case files online

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts    

Federal court system moves to put criminal case files online

  • The Judicial Conference recommends making criminal case files as accessible over the Internet as at the courthouse.

March 24, 2004 — Federal criminal case files will soon be made widely available on the Internet, the Judicial Conference of the United States announced last week.

The conference — the official policymaking body of the federal courts — released a five-page statement on March 16 supporting broad access to criminal case records. It simultaneously approved a model rule instructing litigants to withhold certain “personal data identifiers” from court filings, such as social security numbers and financial account information.

The conference, chaired by Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court, embraced a principle that criminal case files should be equally accessible in both electronic and paper format. “Simply stated, if a document can be accessed from a criminal case file by a member of the public at the courthouse, it should be available to that same member of the public through the court’s electronic access system,” the policy statement says.

In September 2001, the conference had endorsed a policy of online access only to civil cases, not criminal cases. After a pilot program in 11 federal courts produced no evidence of harm from allowing such access to criminal cases as well, the conference voted in September 2003 to draft the broader policy that was released last week.

As a practical matter, it remains unclear when online access to criminal case files will become a reality. David Sellers, a spokesman with the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, said the federal judiciary’s software will have to be modified, a process that could take a few months.

In addition, each individual federal court will have to convert to the Case Management/Electronic Case Filing system, which lets parties file pleadings electronically.

So far, 42 of the nation’s 94 district courts have implemented CM/ECF, while others are in the process of doing so, Sellers said. The 13 federal appellate courts will not begin the process until late 2004. Implementing CM/ECF usually takes about 10 months, according to Sellers.

Sellers said the federal judiciary’s funding concerns — the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has cautioned that the judiciary may have to lay off up to 3,800 employees — should not have a direct impact on electronic access because the system is paid for by user fees.

However, Sellers noted that significant layoffs could “make it more difficult to get the system up and running in the first place.”

JM

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