Courts Experiment with Online Access, Fee Issues
State and federal courts around the country are experimenting with new technologies as a way of filing, storing and disseminating judicial records.
Electronic systems have the potential to make court documents more readily accessible to the public, but also present new problems that can actually diminish availability.
With varying degrees of enthusiasm, state and federal courts are embracing the computer age. Courts are establishing Web sites where judicial opinions are posted, instituting electronic docketing court bulletin board systems, and experimenting with electronic filing systems that enable parties to file documents with the court via e-mail and, to a lesser degree, facsimile.
For example, the Washtenaw County Court in Ann Arbor, Mich., maintains such a Web site, and in August, 1997, initiated a paperless court pilot program, one of the first in the country. (See www.co.washtenaw.mi.us/depts/ courts/index.htm)
A similar program is being tested in the federal district court in Boise, Idaho, where residents can access court calendars, local rules, chamber procedures, jury information, reports, statistics and announcements. (See www.id.uscourts.gov)
Electronic access has the potential to make court documents, and therefore the courts themselves, more available to the public. However, such systems can in fact pose additional obstacles to members of the public who seek access, including journalists who cover the courts and who rely on the courts' filing systems for information.
For example, converting from a paper to an electronic system, and maintaining that system, costs money, and some courts are charging for the privilege of utilizing the electronic system. According to a study conducted by the National Center for State Courts, approximately half of the courts offering electronic access to their records charge a fee for utilizing the system. Similarly, users of the federal courts' Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system and the Appellate Bulletin Board System (ABBS) must pay 60 cents per minute for connect time.
Several federal judges have opposed the imposition of a fee for obtaining access to public court records. In 1994, after the Judicial Conference, the administrative arm of the federal courts, announced that the courts should charge a user fee for electronic access to court records, Chief Judge Richard Posner of the federal appeals court in Chicago (7th Cir.) issued an administrative order exempting ABBS users from paying any fees in his circuit. According to Posner, charging a fee for previously free information constituted "a confiscatory tax on public information." (In the Matter of Public Access to the Seventh Circuit Bulletin Board System)
Similarly, Chief Judge Gilbert Merritt of the federal appeals court in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) declined to impose the fee, stating that it "would create a serious impediment to the promotion of public access to such information" and burden the court staff. Finally, the federal appeals court in Jacksonville (11th Cir.) moved online access to opinions from its bulletin board service to the Internet in order to side-step the Judicial Conference's call to charge for the service, and Chief Judge Gerald Tjoflat told the legal newspaper The Recorder that his court lacks resources to maintain the BBS or collect the fee.
Some jurisdictions have contracted or are negotiating with private companies to establish electronic accessing systems. The North Carolina House Committee on the Judiciary is considering a bill that would authorize the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts to enter into exclusive contracts with third parties to provide remote electronic access to court information. (H.B. 220)
In 1996, a telecommunications company called Ameritech entered into negotiations with court administrators in Chicago, Ill. and Sacramento, Calif. to provide exclusive …
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Publication information: Article title: Courts Experiment with Online Access, Fee Issues. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: News Media and the Law. Volume: 21. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 1997. Page number: 35+. © Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.