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High-profile criminal court documents to go online

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Secret Courts    

High-profile criminal court documents to go online

  • The California Judicial Council approved a rule Friday allowing documents from high-profile criminal court cases to be published on the Internet.

March 4, 2004 — The California Judicial Council narrowly approved a rule last week that allows for the online publication of criminal court documents. The rule, which was heavily debated among the council, comes with restrictions and expires at the end of the year.

The voting was deadlocked 9-9 until Chief Justice Ronald George cast his vote.

The new rule, passed on Feb. 27, applies only to cases commanding substantial media attention, and will include no documents that are not already publicly available at the courthouse. Sensitive information in the documents will be redacted. The court has final say on whether a case merits online documentation, as well as what information should be redacted.

Some see the rule as a response to the ongoing Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson cases, in which court clerks have been inundated with media queries. Others see the rule as an invasion of privacy, and a risk to defendants seeking a fair trial.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, said he welcomes the new rule but questions the Judicial Council’s motivation.

“The outcome of the voting is consistent with the general policy we would like to see,” Francke said. “But it is driven more by perceptions of practical needs than by policy.

“If the law operates smoothly without unforseen problems, it could be a confidence-builder,” he added. “However, if people start creating pernicious Web sites where court records are doctored in order to publish misinformation, the rule will be seen as a backfire.”

The ruling came on the heels of a legislative analysis report that scolded California court administrators for an overhaul of the state court system’s computer network. The analysis, by the bipartisan Legislative Analysts Office, said the administrators “could not provide a total cost estimate, nor could they say how they planned to pay for the projects even in the next budget year,” according to The administrators have already spent $32.4 million on the new system.

The project is an effort to replace California court’s antiquated computer system, an effort the Legislative Analysts Office said it supports.


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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