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Government relents on papers

Bowing to criticism from consumer-rights groups, the federal government makes more than 7,000 Supreme Court decisions available online.

Bowing to criticism from consumer-rights groups, the federal government has made more than 7,000 U.S. Supreme Court decisions available online.

In July, Ralph Nader's Taxpayer Access Project assailed the Clinton administration for refusing to release a database containing 58 years of Supreme Court decisions. The group's mission is to make all taxpayer-funded information, such as court documents and congressional records, available free to the public.

But the government, citing an earlier controversial ruling, argued that "library materials" such as Supreme Court decisions didn't have to be released to the public. The Access Project accused the government of wanting to protect lucrative publishing deals with information companies such as Lexis-Nexis, and today the government relented .

"This file had previously been determined to be exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California," Sally Katzen, an official in the Office of Management and Budget, said in a statement yesterday. "Nonetheless, [the government] has agreed as a matter of discretion to release these materials."

The Access Project generally applauded the government's action but is continuing to study the decision. "The battle over public access to court opinions now shifts to newer opinions from the Supreme Court and lower-court opinions," the organization's Jamie Love said today.

The government posted 7,407 court decisions handed down between 1937 and 1975 to FedWorld, one of the biggest electronic transfers of federal documents in a single day. The online material also includes many obscure documents and rulings from agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The data does bear this warning: "Most decisions are very large and may take a while to download if you have a slow Internet connection."

But lawyers, professionals, and students find it less costly and time consuming to research such information via the Net, rather than going to a library or having to buy access to private databases.

In August, the National Archives and Records Administration said it was making more of its vast collection of materials available on the Web. They include documents related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The National Archives' in-house library of books and journals will be online by year's end, the agency said.