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Court files from high-profile criminal cases could soon be available on the Internet under a new rule approved Friday by the Judicial Council. The idea of posting cases online has been around for years, and many courts already provide electronic access to civil cases. Courts want to put criminal documents online so that clerks don’t have to spend time fulfilling media requests that can number in the hundreds, especially in high-profile cases like the murder trial of Scott Peterson in San Mateo County, Calif. But posting criminal matters is controversial because some people worry that disseminating the sensitive personal information contained in those files violates privacy. In addition, defense attorneys worry about what online records could mean for their clients’ ability to get a fair shake in the court of public opinion. On Friday, the debate translated into the most contentious discussion the Judicial Council has had in years. Normally, the council’s bi-monthly meetings are subdued, bureaucratic affairs. Nearly every vote is unanimous. But Friday, after almost an hour of arguing, the vote was a 9-9 tie that had to be broken by Chief Justice Ronald George. The chief said he is sure he has had to break a tie vote before, but he could not remember when. “It does show that not all of the debate takes place in committees,” George said afterward. During Friday’s discussion, several members said they were uncomfortable because the rule change came to a vote so fast. The proposal came up only recently, after several courts trying high-profile cases asked for relief from an inundation of media requests. Usually, such a proposal would take longer to move through the council’s bureaucracy. “I’m particularly concerned that this has not gone out to committee,” said Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Jack Komar. “Most judges are not aware of the rule. They should be because I believe there are alternatives.” Tuolumne County Superior Court Presiding Judge Eric DuTemple said he was worried that others, particularly the defense bar and media, weren’t aware of the change and didn’t have the chance to chime in. In response, other council members said something needs to be done now to help out small trial courts where clerks are being overworked by media requests for documents. Although George did not want actual cases mentioned, members and staff talked about three counties: San Mateo; Santa Barbara, where Michael Jackson is being prosecuted; and Los Angeles, where Robert Blake faces murder charges. The new rule is not permanent. It expires at the end of this year, so the council can keep studying the issue. Only certain high-publicity cases will qualify to have documents posted online, and sensitive information will be redacted.

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