Reprinted with permission from the November 12, 2001 issue of Crain's Chicago Business.
The federal judiciary's governing body has just adopted a policy calling for U.S. courts to
There is no question that the public should share in all the benefits of information technology, but the Judicial Conference of the United States' ruling is irresponsible, if not downright dangerous.
Ironically, the 27-member body, chaired by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, was to have debated the civil rights implications of the proposal at its meeting on Sept. 11, but before the group could get down to business on that fateful day, the U.S. Supreme Court was evacuated. The new rule was later adopted by a mail ballot and without any deliberation at all.
So now it's the official policy of the federal judiciary that the documents one can inspect in paper form at the courthouse are to be posted on the Web.
Fortunately, there are a few exceptions to the broad mandate. For one thing, Social Security cases are excluded from electronic access. For another, "personal data indentifiers" - - Social Security numbers, dates of birth, financial account numbers, and the names of minor children - - are to be modified or partially redacted by litigants.
Otherwise, court records will be available online to anyone interested in highly sensitive, often involuntarily divulged information, no matter what his motive may be.
The Judicial Conference's members wisely held off on lifting a ban on remote electronic access to criminal files. They concluded that routinely allowing the public to scrutinize criminal files could compromise the administration of criminal justice. Defendants who are cooperating with the government might suffer reprisals, and targets of criminal investigations might learn about unexecuted search warrants and duck service.
But it's clear that the Judicial Conference acted precipitously in freely allowing civil case files to be viewed electronically. Its policy, although "official," is not binding on individual courts, so let's encourage our federal judges to proceed cautiously and safeguard our right to personal privacy.
Copyright © 2001 by Crain Communications Inc.