Committee proposes some Internet access to federal court records

The Associated Press
Friday August 17, 2001

WASHINGTON — People could log onto their home computers instead of going to the federal courthouse to get information on many cases under a plan to put records on the Internet. 

A panel of judges stopped short of directing that all cases be available online, however, taking a tentative step into the Internet age with civil cases first. Records would be edited to remove personal information that could be used by cyber criminals. 

Recommendations that were released Wednesday follow two years of work and could become the standard not only for all federal courts but some state judiciaries. 

A committee of 14 judges said records of criminal cases should not be put on the Internet for now because “information could then be very easily used to intimidate, harass and possibly harm victims, defendants and their families.” They said the policy should be reviewed within two years. 

“I’m encouraged they haven’t slammed the door on criminal cases. They apparently want to take a go-slow approach, which may be the best thing,” said Tom Newton, attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association 

With privacy advocates on one side and media groups on the other, judicial leaders are walking a tightrope as they decide how to make records available not only by paper at courthouses but also online. 

News associations argue that all public records should be treated the same and should be accessible through the Internet, which provides quick availability. Opponents contend those records can include private things like financial information and medical records. 

Court officials would doctor Social Security numbers, dates of birth and minor children’s names in online records, under the plan. 

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Chris Hoofnagle, attorney for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Rights Information Center. “There’s clearly a recognition and sensitivity to privacy issues.” 

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., was disappointed. 

“Just when the information age promises to make those criminal records truly public, this committee is suggesting they really shouldn’t be that public after all,” he said. 

The Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for courts, meets Sept. 11 and will consider the recommendations by the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management. 

“The federal courts are not required to provide electronic access to case files ... nevertheless, the federal courts recognize that the public should share in the benefits of information technology, including more efficient access to court case files,” the committee said in its report. 

The committee said Congress should change bankruptcy laws to allow judges to seal those cases to protect privacy. Hoofnagle said bankruptcy records are an easy source for people to get personal information to use for identity theft. 

The report proposed keeping off the Internet cases involving Social Security challenges, like those filed by injured workers. The Social Security Administration asked for an exemption, and the committee agreed that those are “of little or no legitimate use to anyone not a party to the case.” 

The Justice Department had expressed concerns about criminal cases being available on the Internet. 

Federal courts around the country are handling Internet access differently. The committee said policies should be the same nationwide. 

The committee said people who go online to get federal court documents should have to register with a government-run records system, which charges a fee. 


On the Net: 

U.S. Courts privacy debate: http://www.privacy.uscourts.gov/