Federal, State Courts Consider Online Access

By Gauthier, Ahsley | News Media and the Law, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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Federal, State Courts Consider Online Access


Gauthier, Ahsley, News Media and the Law


ROUNDUP

Some judiciaries eager to post records or hold court on Internet

Last year, the federal judiciary announced that some federal court records would be available electronically, giving hope to news media advocates who believe that technological advances will simplify the reporting process.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, a policymaking group for the nation's federal court system approved policies in September 2001 to permit electronic access to certain court case files.

The access plan provided that documents in civil cases should be made available electronically to the same extent that they are available at the courthouse. The plan exempted 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 policy also applied 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 the present time. But the group required a reexamination of the policy regarding criminal records within the next two years.

Appellate cases, under the federal plan, will be treated in the same manner as they are treated at the lower court level.

Recent developments show that the courts are slowly starting to warm to the idea of electronic access, but there still exists some hesitancy to allow all information onto the Internet.

California Judicial Council rules follow federal model for online access

The California Judicial Council has adopted Rules of Court that permit public access to digital court files. The rules, which take effect on July 1, are similar to the federal rules, which allow access to most civil files, but preclude Internet access to criminal cases and some personal information.

Available information will include the name of the case, the date it began, a list of each action taken in the case, calendars and indexes.

Particular documents from a case may be available if the person seeking the record knows the case name or number, but they will not be available through bulk distribution.

Records in six types of cases will be available electronically at the courthouse but not remotely, due to privacy concerns. These types of cases are family law cases, juvenile proceedings, guardianship or conservatorship proceedings, mental health proceedings, criminal cases and civil harassment cases.

The rules do not require courts to use electronic access if they lack the resources or technological capacity, but a court must ensure that the records are available in some form.

The Judicial Council asked its staff to report on the courts' experiences in providing electronic access to court records by January 2004.

Maryland's second try doesn't limit access to only state, local officials

Maryland's Committee on Access to Court Records has proposed a plan that allows electronic access to court records.

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