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March 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Greater Access to, Transparency in Court Proceedings Aim of Conference

At its biannual meeting in March the Judicial Conference adopted two recommendations aimed at providing greater access to and transparency in court proceedings.

Endorsing a recommendation from its Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, the Conference strongly urged all federal district courts with electronic dockets to indicate clearly when cases are sealed by using computer notices that state "case under seal" rather than "case does not exist."

The federal court system’s Case Management/Electronic Case Filing System, which currently operates in 92 out of 94 district courts, has made case files more available to the public. Users who queried the system about a sealed case or docket entry received an automated response stating "this case does not exist," which caused some to allege that courts were maintaining "secret" dockets. Under the new Conference policy, courts that have electronically sealed case files are being urged to revise their message to indicate that particular cases have been placed under seal.

Acting on a recommendation from the same committee, the Conference also endorsed a six-to-12-month pilot project in which several courts will make digital audio recordings of courtroom proceedings publicly available online through the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system. Use of digital audio recording as a method of making a court record was approved by the Conference in 1999, and audio recordings of court proceedings routinely have been available for purchase at clerks’ offices in courts where recording devices are used to take the record of proceedings. Currently, 37 active judges in ten district courts, virtually all magistrate judges, and 72 bankruptcy courts use electronic sound recording equipment.

  In other action, the Conference:

  • Asked Congress to create 67 new federal judgeships. Every two years a Conference committee surveys court judgeship needs and forwards its findings to the Conference for action. The 15 court of appeals and 52 district court judgeships requested reflect the results of the latest survey.

    Congress has not increased the number of appellate judges since it last enacted an omnibus judgeship bill in 1990. Since that time, the number of court of appeals judgeships has remained at 179, even though federal appellate court case filings have risen by 55 percent over the same 17-year time period. In various appropriations measures, Congress has increased the number of district court judgeships by 4 percent, from 645 to 674, since 1990, a period in which district court case filings have risen by 29 percent.

    The Conference also requested that Congress make permanent five temporary judgeships and extend one temporary judgeship by another five years.

  • Authorized and directed its Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability to recommend guidelines and, if necessary, new rules for implementing the judicial disability statute in a uniform manner throughout the federal court system. In September 2006, the Committee was tasked with reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Disability Act Study Committee, which was chaired by Justice Stephen Breyer.