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Judges Call for Civil Federal Court Info to Go Online; Balk at Putting Most Criminal Case Info on the Web


Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert
Aug. 17, 2001
Vol. 6; No. 5B

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

Federal court records in civil and bankruptcy cases would be available via the Internet, if recommendations from a panel of federal judges are adopted. The recommendations were made public August 15 in a report from the federal Judicial Conference’s Committee on Court Administration and Case Management. The committee is composed of 14 federal judges.
The full 27-member Judicial Conference is expected to consider the recommendations at its September 11 meeting.
Criminal case information should not be made available on-line, the report recommends, except for dockets, judicial orders and opinions. The report calls for the Conference to re-visit the issue of criminal case records within two years.
In making its recommendation, the Committee rejected an option that would have allowed on-line access to “documents routinely contained in criminal files.” Under that option, public access would not be allowed for plea agreements, pre-sentence reports, un-executed arrest warrants or some pre-indictment information.
While SPJ and other organizations believed that proposal did not go far enough to insure openness, it was preferable to the Conference’s other option, which was to block all criminal records from the Internet.
SPJ and other journalism organizations had proposed that the Judicial Conference treat electronic access to federal court records in the same way it treats in-person access. That is, if a document can been accessed by visiting the courthouse, it should be available via the Internet.
The Judicial Conference report adopts that approach for civil and bankruptcy cases, with provisions that “personal data identifiers” such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, financial account numbers and the names of minor children, be changed or removed by the litigating parties.
Information on cases on appeal in the federal system would be handled at the appellate level in the same way they were handled at the district level. In other words, if documents were available on-line at the lower court, they would remain available on appeal.

To read the federal courts’ Administrative Office news release on the recommendations (and to link to the full report) visit:

To read SPJ’s comments (and those of other journalism organizations) to the Judicial Conference, visit:

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