Mixed verdict for court records

Federal courts will begin putting documents pertaining to civil cases online as soon as possible but will not post criminal case files, which often contain sensitive information, such as names and addresses of law enforcement officers and crime witnesses.

The decision, approved by the Judicial Conference of the United States Sept. 19, will make federal court files available to anyone with a computer and a modem — and money to pay an access fee of 7 cents a page.

In other action, the Judicial Conference approved a crackdown on federal court employees' private use of the nationwide court data communications network.

A new "model appropriate use policy" bans court employees from using their office computers to access such file-sharing services as Napster and Gnutella. Employees are also forbidden to create, download, view, store, copy or transmit sexually explicit materials or those related to gambling or illegal weapons.

For more than a year, officials have been concerned that use of the judiciary's private network has increased far more than court business would warrant. Monitoring revealed that some of the 30,000 federal court employees were using the system for purposes unrelated to work, including downloading music and movie files. That nonwork use was causing congestion and delays in the network.

An investigation revealed great "abuse and misuse" and "some substantial security issues," according to Judge Edwin Nelson, chairman of the Judicial Conference's Committee on Automation and Technology.

In a closed-circuit TV news conference from his office in Birmingham, Ala., Nelson said Sept. 19 that use of court computers to access file-sharing services was a special security concern. Such services create tunnels through security firewalls that jeopardize the network's security, he said.

The committee "discerned no material business use for Gnutella, Napster" and other file-sharing services, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. "Adopting an appropriate use policy means that judiciary employees will be using their taxpayer-purchased automation equipment primarily to do judiciary business," Nelson said.

The investigation into the increasing network traffic sparked a judicial revolt last spring in which the Ninth Circuit Judicial Council demanded that monitoring of network use be halted.

However, the Judicial Conference made it clear that all federal courts now "have the responsibility to adopt and enforce appropriate use policies at least as demanding as the model policy."

As for putting case documents online, the Judicial Conference wrestled with "conflicting policies of privacy and access," said Judge Jerry Davis of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management.

Most court files are public documents, but they enjoy a degree of privacy through "practical obscurity." For example, documents in Davis' Aberdeen, Miss., courthouse are not easy to get to because seeing them requires going to Aberdeen, entering a well-guarded courthouse and reviewing them in the presence of a clerk.

On the Internet, however, they would be available anywhere. That could increase the danger to law enforcement officials involved in arresting, prosecuting and jailing defendants and to witnesses who have testified against them.

Because of the potential threat to law enforcement officials and witnesses, the Judicial Conference voted overwhelmingly against putting criminal case records online for at least two years. They voted to put civil case documents online, but to withhold information such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth. Similar information blackouts will apply to bankruptcy case files.

Eventually, the Judicial Conference will probably have to again consider putting criminal case files online, Davis said. "We will be guided a lot by our experience" with civil and bankruptcy cases, he said.

Case files will be posted online as the various federal courts acquire the necessary hardware and software, Davis said. Case files then will be available through the federal court's PacerNet system, which charges 7 cents a page to view, copy or download documents.

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