|NMU||WASHINGTON, D.C.||Secret Courts||Sep 25, 2001|
Judicial Conference votes on electronic access to court records
- Judges decide to permit improved computer and online access to civil case records but deny such an approach to criminal court files.
A policymaking group for the nation’s federal court system on Sept. 19 approved policies to permit electronic access to certain court case files.
The access plan, approved by the Judicial Conference of the United States, provides that documents in civil cases should be made available electronically to the same extent that they are available at the courthouse. The plan exempts 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 Judicial Conference is the body that makes policy for all federal courts. It consists of federal judges from around the nation and is chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
The Judicial Conference adopted, without change, an access plan presented by a special committee on Aug. 15. The committee had been assembled to investigate various options regarding electronic access to court records and privacy implications of access.
Open-government advocacy groups, such as The Reporters Committee of Freedom of the Press, submitted comments to the committee and testified at a hearing held in March, urging the approval of more electronic access to federal court records.
The final policy will also apply 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 this time. But the group required a reexamination of the policy regarding criminal records within the next two years.
No official reason was given by the Judicial Conference to explain why electronic access to criminal records would be denied, but individual judges have spoken to the news media, saying that the privacy interests of victims and witnesses are a concern.
Appellate cases will be treated in the same manner as they are treated at the lower court level.
© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press