Some judiciaries eager to post records or hold court on Internet
From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 43.
Last year, the federal judiciary announced that some federal court records would be available electronically, giving hope to news media advocates who believe that technological advances will simplify the reporting process.
The Judicial Conference of the United States, a policymaking group for the nation’s federal court system approved policies in September 2001 to permit electronic access to certain court case files.
The access plan provided that documents in civil cases should be made available electronically to the same extent that they are available at the courthouse. The plan exempted Social Security cases, and the judges said litigants should partially redact “personal data identifiers” such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, financial account numbers and names of minor children.
The policy also applied to bankruptcy cases. But the Judicial Conference voted that the Bankruptcy Code should be amended to allow sealing of bankruptcy files where privacy concerns were present and to allow the court to collect a debtor’s entire Social Security number but display only the last four digits in the records.
The conference also voted to disallow electronic access to criminal cases at the present time. But the group required a reexamination of the policy regarding criminal records within the next two years.
Appellate cases, under the federal plan, will be treated in the same manner as they are treated at the lower court level.
Recent developments show that the courts are slowly starting to warm to the idea of electronic access, but there still exists some hesitancy to allow all information onto the Internet.
California Judicial Council rules follow federal model for online access
The California Judicial Council has adopted Rules of Court that permit public access to digital court files. The rules, which take effect on July 1, are similar to the federal rules, which allow access to most civil files, but preclude Internet access to criminal cases and some personal information.
Available information will include the name of the case, the date it began, a list of each action taken in the case, calendars and indexes.
Particular documents from a case may be available if the person seeking the record knows the case name or number, but they will not be available through bulk distribution.
Records in six types of cases will be available electronically at the courthouse but not remotely, due to privacy concerns. These types of cases are family law cases, juvenile proceedings, guardianship or conservatorship proceedings, mental health proceedings, criminal cases and civil harassment cases.
The rules do not require courts to use electronic access if they lack the resources or technological capacity, but a court must ensure that the records are available in some form.
The Judicial Council asked its staff to report on the courts’ experiences in providing electronic access to court records by January 2004.
Maryland’s second try doesn’t limit access to only state, local officials
Maryland’s Committee on Access to Court Records has proposed a plan that allows electronic access to court records. The committee was formed in December 2000 in response to a public outcry opposing previously proposed rules that would have restricted access.
The previously proposed plan would have limited dial-up access to the court’s electronic records to lawyers, police and government agencies. It would have required everyone seeking court records to state their name and affiliation and to prove that they had a “legitimate” reason to look at court records. The decision to permit or deny access would have been left solely to the record custodian’s discretion. The plan would have also limited the number of records any person could see in one day to only 10 records.
The committee abandoned the plan due to extensive opposition. The Associated Press reported that more than 160 people wrote to oppose the rules. Opponents included the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. Other opponents included landlords, employers, childcare professionals, investigators and ordinary citizens.
The new draft plan suggests that current access to records be maintained. The Judicial Information System provides access to anyone who subscribes to it, including news organizations, businesses and other individuals. The plan, however, does not contain specific rules for public access to court files.
Michigan creates cybercourt
The Michigan Legislature passed a bill to create a “cybercourt” for business disputes. The cybercourt is supposed to create a more efficient way to deal with civil cases. Lawyers would be expected to file briefs online and make court appearances by teleconference. There would be no jury. To qualify, the dispute must involve business transactions of at least $25,000. The judges assigned to the cybercourt will be given special training.
Posting of sex offenders’ names on Internet illegal in New Jersey
A federal judge in New Jersey ruled on Dec. 6 that the names of convicted sex offenders may not be posted on the Internet because their right to privacy outweighed the government’s need to notify the public of their residences.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas ruled that New Jersey’s “Megan’s Law,” as written, would theoretically allow the police to publish the names and addresses of convicted sex offenders on a Web site. However, the law fails to account for the privacy interests of the sex offenders. The Internet may be accessed by any person, from any location, and the scope extends beyond the area where the offender lives. Thus, Irenas enjoined the posting of the names on the Internet but permitted the police to keep a list at the station and notify immediate neighbors of the offender’s presence.
The decision, however, doesn’t relieve sex offenders of furnishing local police with personal information, including name, Social Security number, race, exact address of legal residence, and dates and places of employment. — AG