More court files online

With little fanfare, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the principal policy-making body for the federal court system, recently reversed itself and approved a pilot program in 11 federal courts that gives the public online access to court files in criminal cases.

The conference launched the program after approving it at a meeting in March, but it was only made public by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on May 7. The information is available via the federal courts' Public Access to Court Electronic Records system.

In August 2001, the conference voted to put most civil and bankruptcy case files online but prohibited electronic access to criminal case files, citing potential safety and law enforcement issues.

Conference members decided, however, to study the issue of allowing access to criminal case files, and "this pilot program is exactly that — a vehicle for studying" the policy, said Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Journalists had criticized the conference's original decision as an effort to make a false distinction between the paper files that are freely available to the public and the electronic versions of those files. The new decision "is good news, and it's heartening to see the judicial conference acted relatively quickly," said Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum.

But privacy advocates fear that allowing electronic access to criminal files will encourage unchecked data mining. "We're working to establish use limitations so these records can be used for journalistic, historical and educational purposes but not for amassing profiles on individuals," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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