The U.S. Judicial Conference took steps yesterday to end “secret” dockets in federal courts and to put audio of federal court proceedings online, reports Legal Times. Meeting at the Supreme Court, the policy-making body of the federal judiciary urged all federal courts to end the practice whereby some cases under seal “vanish” from electronic dockets and databases. When software changes are made, at least the notation “Case Under Seal” or “Sealed v. Sealed” will appear with a docket number, giving the media and others the ability to challenge or examine the circumstances behind the seal, says Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Media organizations have reported that in hundreds of criminal cases, entire case files have disappeared from electronic dockets. Last year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press published a study showing that as many as 18 percent of criminal cases filed in D.C. federal court were missing or “undocketed.” Often these are cases of defendants who have become informants, and the seal is meant to protect their identity, says Hogan, who credits the reporters committee with alerting him to the problem. Once taken off the electronic docket, Hogan says, these cases are often left off, long after the need to seal them has ended. The conference endorsed a pilot project aimed at making audio of court proceedings available online through the federal judiciary’s PACER electronic access system. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has posted audiotapes of oral arguments online since the turn of the century, but other courts have been slow to follow suit.