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When we first started covering federal court websites in 1998, barely half the District Courts had websites. Three years later, the Supreme Court, all Circuit Courts and nearly all the District Courts have their own sites including seven which have gone on line in the last few months. (For access to all the Appellate and District Court sites, go to the Federal Courts section of our website.) Dockets and case documents are now available through WebPACER. As the number of sites and their use has expanded, however, the issues of privacy and the accuracy of data have become more important.
While the California courts recently decided to increase public and press access to civil actions, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is examining the issue of whether there is too much public access available. With most federal courts expected to implement the new Case Management/Electronic Case Files system over the next few years, information that would normally require a trip to the courthouse to obtain will become accessible to anyone with a web browser. The courts are therefore seeking comments on whether everything in the case files should be posted on line or what limitations should be imposed. According to the Request for Comment:
“Federal court case files contain personal and sensitive information that litigants and third parties are often compelled by law to disclose for adjudicatory purposes. Bankruptcy debtors, for example, must divulge intimate details of their financial affairs for review by the case trustee, creditors, and the judge. Civil case files may contain medical records, personnel files, proprietary information, tax returns, and other sensitive information. Criminal files may contain arrest warrants, plea agreements, and other information that raise law enforcement and security concerns.”
The courts are considering a variety of proposals for possibly limiting access to these types of information. These range from completely open access to no online access and a number of alternatives in between. To review the proposals and comment on them, go to www.privacy.uscourts.gov. Comments are being accepted until January 26.
Accuracy of Online Rules
While nearly all federal courts now have their local rules on line, there is always the question of whether any on-line source is accurate and up to date. The standard disclaimer is that only the printed copy of the rules is to be considered official, but even these may be modified by court orders issued before the next printed volume is issued.
In September, the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, in addition to recommending that all courts have their local rules posted on the Internet, proposed that “courts be encouraged to include on their sites a uniform statement indicating the posted rules are current.” (www.uscourts.gov/rules/jc09-2000/report.pdf)
The proposal still has to be approved by the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management and the Judicial Conference before it goes into effect, but when it does it will greatly enhance the certainty to online research.