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Though electronic docketing in federal court is nearly universal, 32 of the 92 districts still use electronic case-filing programs that hide the existence of potentially hundreds of civil and criminal files. Computer searches of known sealed cases produce results like the “case does not exist” or the number is “not valid,” rather than identify existing, but sealed cases. This has brought cries that courts have concealed files. The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal courts, in March “strongly urged” district courts to eliminate the misleading computer response and identify a case as “sealed.” Under review But change is slow. In the San Francisco-based Northern District of California, a check with the clerk’s office filings on May 31 turned up five sealed cases processed that day, but in each instance a computer check identified the cases not as sealed but as having invalid numbers. And for a 2003 sealed criminal case, the computer indicated, “error/access restricted,” but included the intimidating note, “access attempt has been logged.” “The court is reviewing the recommendation of the Judicial Conference,” said Ian Key, chief deputy of court operations in San Francisco. He said he knew of no current plans to change the computer program in the Northern District. State courts around the country have similar problems. In Miami, a newspaper investigation found two instances in which state court dockets were altered � despite a state law ban � to make it appear that charges had been dropped against a man acting as an informant, even though he had in fact pleaded guilty to money laundering, according to a report issued on June 4 by the Reporters’ Committee on Freedom of the Press. Increasingly, independent media investigations have turned up hundreds of cases in Seattle, Las Vegas and Washington that are completely sealed in violation of legal standards for sealing. The goal of opening cases to public inspection is not to protect the media, “this is about an open society,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the reporters’ committee in Arlington, Va. “Courts must make specific findings of fact and must narrowly tailor the sealing order. The media can only challenge cases they know about.” U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who will moderate a discussion on sealed records during July’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals conference, said that the public has a legitimate right to see records “unless there is good cause to seal it.” In the face of a news account in 2006 that found that the electronic filing system created invisible cases, the Judicial Conference issued its recommendation to identify cases as “sealed” to eliminate the perception of a super-secret docket. “In terms of the number of courts that have changed the message, it is still a work in progress,” said David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “We have 60 courts out of 92 that have made the change. That is good and we’re confident the number will go up,” he said.

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