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Electronic Access to Federal Case Files Won’t be Free, Immediate or Universal


Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert
October 1, 2001
Vol. 6; No. 7

Contact: Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman or 406/542-4400.

New federal courts policy approved — not all courts online, no criminal case files, access will be pay-per-view

The good news: Americans will begin having more detailed access to federal civil and bankruptcy court documents via the Internet, thanks to recent action by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The not-so-good news:

*The Judicial Conference did not allow criminal case information to be available online, although it will re-visit that issue within the next two years.

*There is no scheduled implementation date for the new policy. Nor is there a deadline for courts to comply with it.

*The expanded access to federal court information will only be through the U.S. court system’s PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) Internet service. PACER currently offers electronic information on court dockets, as well as federal court decisions. To use the service, a user must register, establish an account and pay seven cents per page accessed. There’s also a fee for search results. Users are billed quarterly for charges.
(See below for a PACER web address.)

*According to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, not every federal court currently is online. In addition, some courts require users to have specific software in order to view records.

The Judicial Conference is composed of federal district and appeals judges and is led by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It approved the electronic access policy by mail ballot, the results of which were released September 19. (The conference had been scheduled to vote on the proposal at its regular semi-annual meeting in Washington on September 11, but the meeting was suspended following the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.)

The standard for electronic access to civil and bankruptcy court case documents will be same as for “in person” courthouse access. Put another way, if you can see it at the courthouse, you can see it on-line. However, personal identifiers, such as Social Security numbers, will be modified or removed from electronic documents.

Documents in appellate cases will be treated the same way at the appellate level as they were at the lower court level. In other words, what had been open will remain open, what had been closed will remain closed.

In approving the plan, the full conference followed the recommendations made in August by its Committee on Court Administration and Case Management. To view the Judicial Conference’s press release announcing the new policies, as well as the full committee report, visit:

David Sellers, a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Courts office in Washington, said the new access policy means PACER users will have access to a far greater amount of case information, but only for cases that are filed after September 19. Courts will not be required to electronically scan files from past or currently active cases.

Courts also will implement the policy as resources allow, he said, noting that not all courts currently have electronic access.

To learn more about PACER or to register, visit:

The site includes an extensive FAQ section that explains how the system works, as well as an account registration form.


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The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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