Court overturns federal e-records ruling

A federal appeals court ruled today that a government policy allowing agencies to delete electronic records as long as they preserved paper copies is valid, reversing a nearly 2-year-old district court decision.

Writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge Douglas Ginsburg said the policy, known as General Records Schedule 20 "seems to embody a reasoned approach" to laws that demand agencies preserve their important records and dispose of the ones they no longer need.

Although the court agreed that maintaining e-mail and word processing records digitally "has advantages over paper recordkeeping," it concluded that an agency can legally be allowed "to choose, based upon its own operational needs, whether to use electronic or paper recordkeeping systems."

The decision in Public Citizen v. Carlin gives federal agencies some breathing room to develop new information systems for managing the billions of electronic documents they generate every year. A statement issued by the National Archives and Records Administration said NARA "welcomes the opportunity...to continue in an orderly way to develop practical, workable strategies and methods for managing and preserving" electronic records.

Alan Morrison, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which brought the suit, said the ruling was disappointing but added that the government "has recognized that we are correct as a matter of policy and objectives" by starting to craft electronic recordkeeping policies before the appeals court ruled.

Until the district court's October 1997 ruling, few agencies were maintaining any of their e-mail and word processing files in digital form, and only the Defense Department had developed a comprehensive policy for doing so. Today, almost every agency has at least started to study the issue.

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