Courts hear online records debate

U.S. Courts officials mulled the suggestions of stakeholders on Friday as they consider how to balance the privacy of court records with the right to access them in the Internet age.

A subcommittee of the Judicial Conference of the United States — the policy-making arm of the courts — held a public hearing on the privacy and security implications of providing electronic public access to civil, criminal and other court case files.

More and more courts across the country are filing cases electronically, and the Internet enables them to make these files available at any time and from any location. The question is: What are the implications of providing this kind of access, and what restrictions — if any — should be put in place?

Members of the conference's Privacy and Public Access to Electronic Case Files Subcommittee heard wide-ranging answers from public and private organizations. Representatives from the National Newspaper Association and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, for instance, agreed that if a court file is available in paper form, it should also be made available in electronic form.

"The technology is irrelevant and a red herring in this issue," said Ken Allen, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Newspaper Association.

On the other hand, the Justice Department proposes — in the short-term — restricting full access to online files to those people who need to know, such as lawyers and law enforcement officials, until the issue is fully studied and a long-term approach ironed out.

Justice supports "appropriate extensive access in the long run," said Jonathan Meyer, deputy assistant attorney general in the department's Office of Policy Development. However, it's essential to "react quickly" to the immediate changes brought about by technology, Meyer said.

Judge John Lungstrum, chairman of the subcommittee, said he hopes to present the groups' recommendations at the Judicial Conference meeting in September.

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