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The Judicial Conference took steps Tuesday to end “secret” dockets in federal courts and to eventually put audio of federal court proceedings online. Meeting at the Supreme Court, the conference — 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 in recent years 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. “It is an unintentional problem that arose,” Hogan says. Hogan, who chairs the executive committee of the Judicial Conference, says the vanished dockets send the wrong message to the public. “It does look like the courts are trying to hide cases,” Hogan says. He spoke at a press briefing following the judges’ meeting, which is itself closed to the media and public. With new software that some courts have already, and others will have soon, all previously vanished cases should reappear — albeit still under seal — “in the next couple of months,” Hogan says. “We expect every court to do it.” Hogan indicated that the conference will also look at the larger policy question of whether so many cases should be sealed, and for how long. In Washington, he says, procedures have been put in place so that sealing orders will be reviewed regularly to determine if confidentiality is still needed. Acting on another issue of public access, the conference also endorsed a pilot project aimed at making audio of court proceedings available online through the federal judiciary’s PACER electronic access system. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has posted audiotapes of its oral arguments online since the turn of the century, but other courts have been slow to follow suit. Under the pilot program, several district courts — not yet chosen — will put the audio of all proceedings, except closed hearings, online. In an aside, Hogan also praised the arrangements that were made for media and public access to the recent I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby trial held in his courthouse. He says the large media contingent was aided by video from the trial viewable in a media room that was also equipped with wireless Internet access. As a result, Hogan says, coverage of the trial was “a lot more accurate, I thought, and timely.” Hogan also says the conference voted to ask Congress to create 15 new appeals court judgeships and 52 new district judgeships to meet caseload demands, especially in the 9th Circuit and in border districts with heavy immigration dockets. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and seven members of Congress addressed the conference, Hogan said, and several offered encouragement that Congress may this year approve raises in judicial pay. Apart from cost-of-living adjustments, “we’ve had two raises in 40 years,” Hogan says. “They were in 1969 and 1989, and we hope we won’t have to wait until 2009.” Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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