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Lieberman questions accessibility, privacy of court docs

Sen. Joe Lieberman asks federal court system to explain why it charges for online copies of court records and why personal information in them is not better protected.

Carl Malamud, the tech activist campaigning to be named head of the Government Printing Office, appears to have the support of at least one Washington politician.

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) sent a letter Friday to the federal court system with concerns about whether court documents are sufficiently accessible to the public and whether private information in those documents is appropriately secured. The letter cites research Malamud conducted showing that personal information is not well protected.

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)
Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)

In his letter to Judge Lee Rosenthal, who chairs the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure for the Judicial Conference of the United States, Lieberman asked if the court system is complying with the E-Government Act of 2002.

One of the goals of the legislation, Lieberman wrote, was "to increase free public access to these records...(yet) seven years after the passage of the E-Government Act, it appears that little has been done to make these records freely available."

Currently, court documents are electronically released through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, which charges 8 cents a page for access. The E-Government Act, however, altered the law so that courts may only charge fees for such documents as is necessary. Given that the Judiciary Information Technology Fund had a surplus of about $150 million in 2006, Lieberman points out, that 8-cent fee does not seem necessary.

Furthermore, the letter says, an investigation on Malamud's site found numerous examples of personal data in court records that should have been redacted, in accordance with the E-Government Act's privacy provision.

"Given the sensitivity of this information and the potential for identity theft or worse, I would like the court to review the steps they take to ensure this information is protected and report to the (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee) on how this provision has been implemented as we work to increase public access to court records," the letter says.