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Federal judges approve electronic access to some criminal case files

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Secret Courts         Mar 14, 2002    

Federal judges approve electronic access to some criminal case files

  • After lifting a prohibition against placing criminal case files online with the Moussaoui trial, judges approved a pilot program to examine how well such access works in selected courthouses nationwide.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, responding to nationwide interest in cases like U.S. v. Moussaoui , voted March 13 to allow access to criminal case files when requests for documents in high-profile cases impose extraordinary demands on court clerks.

The group also announced the creation of a pilot program to allow some courts to provide online access to such files on a regular basis.

The Judicial Conference develops policy for all federal courts and includes federal judges from around the country. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist chairs the group, which meets twice a year to consider issues affecting the federal court system.

This week’s action follows the group’s decision Sept. 19 to permit electronic access to certain civil cases. With that plan, the Judicial Conference determined that documents in civil cases should be made available electronically to the same extent that they are available at the courthouse. At the time, the group opted to not allow such access to criminal records but said it would study the matter within two years.

The Judicial Conference acted swiftly, in part, because of high interest in U.S. v. Moussaoui , the federal case in Virginia involving a man accused of contributing to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Conference’s executive committee approved a temporary exception to the prohibition on online access to criminal case files, so the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., could handle the enormous demand for records in the Moussaoui case.

The group voted to allow such access when requests for documents in high-profile cases impose extraordinary demands on court clerks. However, electronic access would only be permitted if both parties in the case and the judge consent.

The pilot program will include a selection of federal courts from across the country. The Judicial Conference plans to track the participating courts over a two-year period and then review the results.

PT

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