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And justice for all?

Group seeks free Internet access to past 20 years of Supreme Court rulings.

A Ralph Nader group has asked Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist to release electronic versions of Supreme Court decisions made since 1976.

While many public records such as legislative records can already be retrieved via the Internet, court decisions are far more difficult to acquire. If the court grants the request, 54 out of the last 60 years of Supreme Court opinions would be available free on the Internet, a major victory over powerful database publishers who have attempted to retain control of publishing rights for the decisions.

Taxpayer Access Project is a consumer watchdog group whose goal is to make all taxpayer-funded records available free on the Internet. TAP recently pressured the White House into releasing 38 years of the high court's decisions stored in the Air Force's FLITE database, but was refused access to all decisions since 1975.

This is because the Air Force entered into a contract in 1976 with West Publishing to use West's database of court decisions in lieu of its own. Public records cannot themselves be copyrighted, but West Publishing claims a copyright on the page numbering system used almost universally to identify court documents and on any corrections. Since 1976, the company has used its copyright claims to keep court records from being made accessible for free.

"West's activities have had the practical effect of giving this private firm a monopoly," said TAP Director James Love.