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Federal criminal court filings to be made available online

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering    

Federal criminal court filings to be made available online

  • The U.S. Judicial Conference has approved new requirements that will make federal criminal court filings available to the public over the Internet.

Nov. 3, 2003 — The policy-making body of the federal courts has approved new requirements making criminal court filings available over the Internet, but limited the amount of personal information available in those filings.

The new requirements, adopted by the U.S. Judicial Conference in September, are seen by many court observers as a major victory for public access.

“This is terrific,” said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York. “We really need to commend the Conference for taking the initiative to improve public access and make these filings available online.”

The new requirements, which have yet to be implemented, mandate that personal information — some of which has long been available on bond sheets and pleadings — be redacted from federal criminal court filings before they are made publicly available. Under the requirements, home addresses and birth dates will be redacted from the filings. Social Security and financial account numbers will be reported only as the last four digits, and the names of minor children will be reported only as initials.

The Conference decided to limit the amount of personal information publicly available “primarily because of identity theft concerns,” said David Sellers, spokesman for the federal courts administrative office.

“Making this information available over the Internet would make identity theft all the more easier,” he said.

But Baron cautioned that restricting information like birth dates and home addresses is “too severe” and “unnecessary.”

“This is the kind of information that allows members of the press to accurately identify who the parties are,” she said. “And without some significant research and determination that it’s really necessary to keep this information from the public, then I do think the Judicial Conference has gone a little too far.”

The requirements make attorneys, and not court clerks, responsible for posting the files and redacting personal information. Attorneys who do not redact or post their files may be subject to sanctions.

The Judicial Conference set no date for when the policy will take effect. The new requirements were approved after a pilot program in 10 federal district courts and one appellate court found the electronic filing of criminal case records to be beneficial.

The pilot program “found no evidence of harm to any individual and also found that the majority of those interviewed in the pilot courts — judges, court staff and counsel — extolled the advantages of electronic access,” the federal court administration said in a prepared statement.

The 27-member Judicial Conference is the principal policy-making body of the federal court system. Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court serves as the presiding officer of the Conference, which is composed of the chief judges of the 13 federal appeals courts, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.

MC

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