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June 2008

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


Pilot Project Update: Digital Audio Recordings Online

Making digital audio recordings of courtroom proceedings publicly available online “has become an operational way of doing business” for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of North Carolina, said Judge J. Rich Leonard.

“It’s gone from a novel tool to an anticipated product, with fairly high usage,” he said. “I consider it a great advance in making our federal courts transparent.”

Providing digital audio recordings online has proved “extremely easy” for the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, reported Judge Richard Kopf. “Many lawyers think this is the best thing since sliced bread,” he said.

In a pilot project that began last August, five federal courts are docketing some digital audio recordings to Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) systems to make the audio files available in the same way written files have long been available on the Internet. The three other courts are the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Maine, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

In each court, the extent of accessibility is determined by individual judges, and not every judge in the five pilot courts is participating. “This is a judge-driven experiment,” said Mary Stickney of the Administrative Office’s Electronic Public Access Program Office. “Because providing digital audio recordings online is done as a convenience for lawyers and the public, each judge has total discretion to decide which proceedings get posted.”

The audio files are accessible through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. Some 840,000 subscribers use PACER to access docket and case information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts.

Access to the recorded proceeding is through a one-page PDF document on the court’s docket. During the life of the pilot project—expected to last through 2008—the cost, regardless of the proceeding’s duration, is eight cents to download the entire audio file.

“Going live” with the pilot project was delayed for the Pennsylvania and Maine courts because the digital audio recording program they use creates and stores files differently. Administrative Office developers and court systems staff had to create computer programs to separate the audio files by each proceeding and convert the files into MP3 format.

The bankruptcy court in the Northern District of Alabama had its first audio files available through PACER last October; the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in January of this year; and the bankruptcy court in Maine in April.

In each court, audio files generally are posted online within 24 hours. “If it doesn’t get up there quickly, we hear about it,” said Alec Leddy, clerk of the bankruptcy court in Maine. “All the feedback has been positive.”

A major concern is assuring that personal information—including Social Security and financial account numbers, dates of birth, and names of minor children—not be available on any online digital audio recording. The Judiciary’s privacy policy restricts publication of such information. Each of the pilot courts warns lawyers and litigants in a variety of ways that they can, and should, request that recorded proceedings that include information covered by the privacy policy, or other sensitive matters, not be posted.

“If any such issue exists, the judge should not upload that audio file,” Leonard said.

In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, recordings to date have been posted in civil cases only. “We held back on criminal cases to be sure there are ways of protecting cooperators, and otherwise ensuring that confidential information is not disclosed,” said Clerk of Court Michael Kunz. He added, however, that the court continues to study the issue of offering digital audio recordings of criminal case proceedings as well.

One goal of the pilot project is to determine the level of public interest. Early indications suggest there is substantial interest. A second goal is to determine an appropriate charge, based on demands on court staff and technological investments to provide adequate bandwidth. (An audio CD of digitally recorded court proceedings, long available at a court clerk’s office, currently costs $26.)

Audio files from hearings that last four hours or longer can be quite large, and it became clear early in the pilot that the existing PACER infrastructure could be adversely affected if there were a substantial demand for such large files. The pilot courts adopted procedures to break those audio files from all-day hearings into morning and afternoon files.

The pilot was approved by the Judicial Conference last year on the recommendation of its Court Administration and Case Management Committee. That committee subsequently asked the Federal Judicial Center to evaluate the project.

“This has been an exceptional pilot, a model of teamwork between the AO and the courts,” Stickney said.

Denise Lucks, clerk of court for the District of Nebraska, agreed. “Working with the AO staff has been terrific—the best pilot we’ve participated in,” she said.