Is Internet too public for court records?

As courts adapt to the Digital Age by creating electronic case files that

lawyers, litigants and court officials can inspect on the Internet, it's

also possible for anyone, anywhere to comb through posted case files and

collect personal data.

"Medical records, financial and personal information, plea agreements

that might reveal who is cooperating in a case, trade secrets and proprietary

information — all may be accessible," said Judge D. Brock Hornby, chairman

of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management.

Such ubiquitous access is troubling enough that the Judicial Conference

of the United States, a body that recommends operating policies for federal

courts, is calling for an in-depth discussion of how much public access

is too much.

The Judicial Conference is seeking comments on the issue by Jan. 26.

The Social Security Administration already has acted. Worried about

identity theft and violations of privacy, the agency obtained a protective

order that blocks the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New

York from posting sensitive Social Security documents on the Internet.

By custom, and sometimes by law, most U.S. court records are public.

"People have a right to view them, but do they have a right to view them

over the Internet?" asked Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Judicial

Conference.

Court documents might reveal information about defendants or witnesses,

making them vulnerable to harassment or harm. Disclosure of warrants or

indictments included in case files could undermine the efforts of prosecutors.

Before the Internet, when court records were available only in courthouses,

geography and bureaucracy limited access to them. The Supreme Court said

the relative difficulty of getting to court records shielded them in "practical

obscurity."

"This "practical obscurity' ends when the court records become easily

accessible and searchable electronically from remote locations," Judge Hornby

said in an address to last summer to a conference of federal judges.

The question is, what to do?

One option is to ask judges to exclude certain information from electronic

versions of documents that are to be posted on the Internet, the Judicial

Conference suggests. A second possibility is to "treat paper and electronic

access equally," but that might mean some of the information now available

in paper documents might be sealed in the future to keep it off the Internet.

Or courts could grant different degrees of access to different people.

Judges, lawyers and court staff might have unlimited electronic access to

files, while the general public would have restricted Internet access. Full

access could still be granted at courthouses, the Judicial Conference said.

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