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Society Calls for Electronic Access to Federal Judicial Records


Contacts: Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee chairman, 406/542-4449 or; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660; Robert F. Becker, SPJ Washington, D.C., Pro Chapter, 202/364-8013.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists today joined an effort to ask the federal Judicial Conference to ensure that Americans have broad electronic access to federal court records.

The Judicial Conference, made up of federal judges, is considering policies regarding public access to electronic federal court records and has been accepting comment through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. SPJ and other media organizations are asking for better public access to those records.

"The Internet provides us with a historic opportunity to enhance access to judicial records. With improved access, journalists will be able to convey to the public a fuller and richer understanding of what happens in our nation’s courts," said Bruce Brown, SPJ’s First Amendment legal counsel. "The public interest and longstanding legal principles point in only one direction — that the Judicial Conference should devise and implement a policy that would make any document available at the courthouse available on the Internet as well."

SPJ, its Washington, D.C., Professional Chapter, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio & Television News Directors Association submitted joint comments today to the Judicial Conference.

Among the organizations’ requests:

That if federal court records are available for inspection at the courthouse, they should be equally accessible online.
That all civil and criminal case files and documents be available online, except where a judge has sealed particular records.
That most bankruptcy court information be available electronically, with exceptions for Social Security numbers and other very specific personal financial information, such as credit card numbers. SPJ also would support a policy that requires less information on petitions, schedules and statements filed in bankruptcy cases. Thus, less redaction would be necessary.
That cases that are appealed to a higher federal court be subject to the same access rules as were in effect at the lower court level.SPJ and the other organizations assert that the public has a longstanding right of access to federal court records, as well as court proceedings. That right is much stronger than possible concerns over privacy.
SPJ and the other organizations signing the release also have requested time to testify at any public hearing that may be conducted to discuss online access policies or access policies in general.

SPJ asserts that improved access would improve the public’s faith in the federal judiciary and would result in more and better reporting on the federal courts by journalists.

"No part of the federal government is as cloistered from the public as the judiciary," said SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee Chairman Ian Marquand, special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. "Anything the judicial branch can do to bring itself closer to the public and provide more information will be beneficial. The public’s trust will increase, as will the judicial branch’s credibility."

SPJ will continue to monitor the Judicial Conference’s consideration of these policy issues and play an active role in shaping federal policy toward the electronic availability of federal court records.

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