Is Internet too public for court records?
- By William Matthews
- Nov 09, 2000
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
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
"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.