Online court records under review

The most personal information lies carefully cataloged in the nation's courthouses.

It's all available for public perusal, but until recently the curious

had to confront court clerks to gain access. That's changing. Courts are

moving rapidly to adapt to the Digital Age by creating electronic case files

that lawyers, litigants, court officials — and the curious public — can

inspect on the Internet.

Now it is possible for anyone, anywhere and at any time, to comb through

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 Chief Judge D. Brock Hornby,

chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and

Case Management.

Such ubiquitous access is so troubling 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.

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.

The Social Security Administration has already reacted. 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 open to

the 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.

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

geography and bureaucracy effectively 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 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 the courthouse, the Judicial Conference

said.

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

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