LII co-founder and Co-Director Emeritus Peter Martin has written an interesting paper on court records and privacy — certainly an issue that is much on our minds here. The tension between openness in court proceedings (on the one hand) and the legitimate privacy interests of participants in the legal system (on the other) are very difficult ones, compounded by many, many private agendas.
We’ve touched on these issues here before, and no doubt will again. If you’re interested, you might take a look at the presentation from Peter Winn that we jointly sponsored with Cornell Information Science in January — and if you’re not interested, you might want to take a look at WhosARat.com. Thirty seconds of thought about what it means to criminal prosecution will get you interested, in a hurry.
Here’s the abstract:
For over a decade the public has had remote access to federal court records held in electronic format, including documents filed by litigants and judicial rulings. First available via dial-up connections, access migrated to the Web in 1998. That and a succession of other improvements to the federal “Public Access to Court Electronic Records” system or PACER prompted the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to proclaim in 2001 that “the advancement of technology has brought the citizen ever closer to the courthouse.” Unquestionably, what the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and Judicial Conference of the United States have built offers citizens, businesses, journalists, and scholars unprecedented access to the details of individual court proceedings. But to hold PACER in that frame is to miss much of its impact. Moreover, some of the gains one might hope or expect to flow from enhanced judicial transparency remain largely untouched by this system. The article explores PACER’s evolution, larger impact, and unrealized possibilities. It then proceeds to examine why state courts are, in general, approaching online access to court records so differently.