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Six years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court seemed close to adopting a recommendation by one of its committees to post almost every court record on the Internet, available to anyone with a modem and a computer. Now, however, in light of budgetary concerns and privacy issues, the judiciary appears to be stepping back from that plan. Toni McLaughlin, assistant director for Internet services for New Jersey’s Administrative Office of the Courts, says that for the time being, complete Internet access to court documents will not be available. “The judiciary does not have the money right now” to expand electronic access, says McLaughlin. “The judiciary’s budget is not what we would like it to be.” The judiciary also has major concerns over privacy issues. Documents are accessible at local courthouses, but that is a far cry from making them available over the Internet, says McLaughlin. The judiciary has yet to address those privacy concerns, as well as the possibility that disclosure could violate statutory guarantees that guarantee privacy, she adds. For the same reasons, McLaughlin says, the judiciary is not ready to endorse the Model Policy on Public Access to Court Records, released earlier this year by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators. The policy said most records should be made available on the Internet. In 1996, the Public Access Subcommittee of the Court’s Judiciary Information Systems Policy Committee, headed by Appellate Division Judge Herman Michels, recommended that virtually every document kept by the court system be made available online. The committee, in a published report, said the judiciary should use the Internet to make everything from pleadings in Special Civil Part cases to filings in matrimonial actions available to the public. There is no reason why documents that were always public, yet buried in files in county clerks’ offices, should not be viewable over the Web, the panel reasoned. The Michels panel rejected concerns that court documents, if made so easily available, could be used to violate someone’s privacy rights. “There is always the possibility of misuse of information no matter what,” said Michels at the time. “It is something we cannot control.” At present, the judiciary makes a wide range of information available on its Internet site, www.judiciary.state.nj.us, such as published New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Division decisions, the Rules of Court, some trial judges’ rulings on motions and attorney disciplinary histories. And, a pilot project in Monmouth County, N.J., allows access to some case documents over the Internet for a fee. The judiciary is not ready to move beyond that, however, McLaughlin says. The budget issue is not a new one. New Jersey Govs. Christine Todd Whitman and James McGreevey rebuffed requests from the judiciary for millions of dollars to update its aging computer system, which dates to the early 1980s. In testimony before Senate and Assembly budget committees, judiciary officials repeatedly have said that unless money for upgrades is available, the court system could crash. Moreover, repairs cannot be made because applicable hardware and software no longer are available. Most recently, Administrative Director of the Courts Richard Williams asked the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in April for an additional $118 million over the next five years to pay for upgrades. That would be on top of the judiciary’s proposed budget of $569.8 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The senators were sympathetic to Williams’ plea, which has become an annual pitch by the AOC, but gave no indication that they would provide the funding. The judiciary currently does not have the capability to make documents available over the Internet, McLaughlin says. That will not change, she says, “unless there are big changes in the budget.” And then there is the issue of privacy. “It is something we are concerned about,” says McLaughlin. That concern is echoed by Princeton, N.J., solo practitioner Grayson Barber, who concentrates on First Amendment and privacy issues and is worried about unfettered computer access to court documents. Should matrimonial documents, which are replete with financial information and personal disclosures and accusations, be made public? Barber asks. What about criminal cases in which, after a number of years, the information is to be expunged? she adds. That material may be deleted by the judiciary, but that does not mean it hasn’t been cut and pasted and maintained somewhere else, she says. And, she says, those documents could be used by others to commit identity theft. “Things have changed in six years,” says Barber. “The Internet has evolved to a point that I don’t think was envisioned by the Michels committee. There are serious issues that have yet to be addressed by the judiciary. “It’s a good time to take a full-scale look at all of these issues,” says Barber. “There may be a lot of unintended consequences” with adopting a policy of complete Internet publication of court documents. “With complete availability, you may be violating [privacy] statutes without meaning to.” McLaughlin cannot say when the judiciary will adopt a formal policy, again noting that little will change from the current practice until the budget situation improves. She adds that the balance between Internet availability of documents and privacy “is not yet there.”

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