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June 2007

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


Pilot Project Will Post Digital Audio Recordings Online

Continuing its efforts to enhance the transparency of courtroom proceedings, the federal Judiciary is about to launch a pilot project to make digital audio recordings publicly available online.

Five pilot project participants—three bankruptcy courts and two district courts—will integrate their recording and Case Management/ Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) systems to make audio files available later this summer on the Internet, the same way written files have long been available.

Pilot Project Courts

U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maine

U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama

U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina

“We’re just treating the audio file as we would a written file,” said U.S. Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard in the Eastern District of North Carolina. “We think providing access to an audio file will prove to be enormously helpful.”

His court and a CM/ECF team within the Administrative Office (AO) are developing the necessary software, and will share it with the bankruptcy courts in the Northern District of Alabama and the District of Maine, and with the district courts for the District of Nebraska and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The lead programming work was done by Leonard’s court for the audio system, VoiceIQ, being used in three of the five pilot courts. The other audio system being used is FTR-Gold. The interface software for it will be developed by both court and AO staff, with AO staff taking the lead for district court development and Leonard’s court taking the lead for bankruptcy court development.

“We’ve been in touch with the four other courts, and will continue with e-mail exchanges and face-to-face meetings in the coming weeks,” Leonard said.

The five courts will make audio file access available through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. More than 600,000 subscribers already use PACER to access docket and case information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. (Learn more about PACER at www.pacer.uscourts.gov.)

Digital audio recording has been one of three authorized methods of making an official record of court proceedings since 1999, when the Judicial Conference voted to make it an alternative to court reporters and analog recording.

But the Conference’s action initially carried the condition that no additional funds over the cost of a court’s analog system be spent for digital audio systems. That limitation was lifted in 2005, and the pilot project won Conference approval last March.

Today, digital audio recording is used in most bankruptcy courts and at least one third of the 94 district courts (where magistrate judges account for most of the usage). In those courts, computer disks of hearings have been available for the authorized fee of $26 but prospective purchasers have had to make a trip to the clerk of court’s office.

During the six-to-12-month pilot project, Internet access to the same content will cost 16 cents—eight cents for accessing the docket sheet and another eight cents for selecting the audio file.

“It’s going to be a PDF document that’s considered a single page,” Leonard explained. “The Administrative Office’s Electronic Public Access Program Office will determine during the pilot project what the appropriate fee should be if such access becomes permanent. The impact on band-width, costs of the required technology, and other factors will be part of that determination.”

The EPA program’s mission is to facilitate and improve electronic public access to court information at a reasonable cost, in accordance with congressional and judicial policies, security requirements and user demands. “This pilot project is a logical step,” said Mary Stickney, the EPA Program Office chief.

It was Leonard, previously a district court clerk and a magistrate judge, who first proposed the pilot project. “He has a keen interest in all aspects of the EPA Program, and his knowledge of history, technology, and policy is unsurpassed in the Judiciary,” Stickney said. “His leadership has been instrumental in shaping the discussion and resulting policy on electronic public access and privacy issues.”

Judges in the five pilot courts will determine which of the hearings they preside over should have a recording posted on PACER for possible downloading. Those seeking to access audio files will find a specially designed icon—an audio speaker—to designate the digital audio recordings.

“We anticipate that these files will be popular, particularly with members of the news media,” Stickney said.