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The governing body of the federal judiciary announced two new high-tech policies Wednesday: one that will restrict and monitor Internet use by federal judges and court employees, and another that will make civil case files available electronically. The Internet policy had generated considerable debate among federal judges worried about intrusions into their deliberations. But both policies were adopted without dissent by the Judicial Conference, officials announced at an unusual press conference in Washington, D.C. The policies were to be debated at a regular meeting of the conference Sept. 11, but the meeting was canceled when the U.S. Supreme Court was evacuated after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. Chief Justice William Rehnquist decided to submit the issues to the 27-member body for a vote by mail. Key judges discussed the votes in a video conference from court chambers in West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Officials said two of the 27 ballots had not yet been returned. “We’re not as excited about these issues now as we were then,” said Alabama U.S. District Judge Edwin Nelson, who chaired the committee that drafted the Internet use policy. West Virginia District Judge Charles Haden II, chair of the conference’s executive committee, said that while the policy votes were not affected by the terrorist acts last week, they may have “crystallized our thinking” about security and privacy issues. Under the new policy, each federal court will have to adopt regulations at least as restrictive as those used by executive branch agencies. The model policy allows judicial employees “limited personal use” of the Internet to check investments, for example. But uses that will bog down the system, such as the downloading of music or video files, are prohibited. And though Nelson said the policy was not content-based, it specifically prohibits downloading or transmitting sexually explicit files as well as those relating to gambling or illegal weapons. Before the vote, some district judges had voiced concern that the policy would keep them and their law clerks from accessing sexually explicit Web sites that are relevant to cases before them involving sexual harassment or child pornography. Nelson stressed that the policy would not prohibit any legitimate work-related Internet use. Inappropriate Internet use, for now, will be monitored at a central location, though officials insist that individual computers will not be scrutinized. “The national Internet gateways are under the control of the Administrative Office,” Nelson said, referring to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington. Monitoring e-mail is not, and never has been, contemplated by the conference, officials said Wednesday. That has been the subject of some dispute. Some federal judges warned the conference that they believed the proposal would allow e-mail monitoring, and they opposed the measure. AO Executive Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham countered in a letter that while monitoring e-mail was not the intent of the program, “confusion and fear” about it prompted him to ask the Judicial Conference to reconsider aspects of the original proposal. The Judicial Conference postponed consideration of what kind of notice judicial employees should be given about the monitoring. Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had likened it to the signs at federal prisons warning inmates that their phone conversations could be monitored. By postponing the notice issue, the conference has in effect allowed Internet use by employees to be monitored without their notification or consent. Kozinski said he was pleased with the outcome, though he and others would remain wary of court administrators’ monitoring efforts in the future. “Clearly there’s no monitoring of individual computers, and there’s not going to be. They dropped their fancy proposals,” he said. The second major policy adopted by the Judicial Conference will allow civil case files to be viewed electronically to the same extent that they can be accessed at the courthouse — with significant exceptions. Social Security cases will not be accessible, and litigants can redact or block out Social Security numbers and other identifying data such as date of birth or financial account numbers. The access would not be through the World Wide Web, but through the federal courts’ existing PACER system, which requires users to open an account and pay a fee of seven cents a page. The conference put off for two years the question of whether criminal case files should ever be made available online. Jerry Davis, a magistrate in Mississippi who chaired the committee on electronic access, said criminal case files pose different problems because they may contain information about co-defendants, witnesses and undercover agents. “It’s one thing to invade somebody’s privacy,” said Davis. “It’s another thing to have someone actually injured or killed.”

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