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Federal courts committee supports online plea bargains

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  1. Court Access
A committee formed by the Federal Judiciary to consider whether criminal plea agreements should be removed from public access on…

A committee formed by the Federal Judiciary to consider whether criminal plea agreements should be removed from public access on the Internet rejected the Department of Justice proposal that would have allowed for access only to the physical records at federal courthouses around the country.

Calling the proposal an "inadequate solution," the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Court Administration and Case Management did, however, cite the need to protect cooperating witnesses — the Justice Department’s stated rationale for its proposed policy change. But instead of recommending a national policy, the committee has referred the matter to each district court, noting that many have already come up with appropriate local solutions.

While the safety of cooperating witnesses is an important consideration, it is also a matter of considerable public interest to see what criminals in local communities who cooperate with law enforcement will receive in turn for that aid. It is the public’s duty to hold government officials accountable for their actions — including deals made with criminals. Individuals who wish harm on cooperating witnesses most likely do not obtain information on "rats" or informants through federal court Web sites — they would likely continue to obtain the information they seek whether the federal judiciary posts plea agreements online or not.

It would be in the public’s best interest if the 94 federal district courts took the committee’s rejection of this proposal as a starting point as they implement their own policies — and to adopt solutions that continue to allow for the greatest public access to these important public records.

In its evaluation of the Justice proposal, the committee reviewed suggestions and comments from inside and outside the judiciary, including comments provided by the Reporters Committee.