Senator Joe Lieberman has asked the policy body of the federal judiciary why it continues to charge the public and lawyers for access to electronically filed documents and whether enough is being done to protect the personal data collected by courts.

The senator, who is head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, expressed concern in a Feb. 27 letter that the federal judiciary had a $150 million surplus in its technology fund as of fiscal year 2006 yet continues to charge the public and lawyers 8 cents per page for access to documents.

“While charging for access was initially required, Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913) so that courts ‘may, to the extent necessary’ instead of ‘shall’ charge fees ‘for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment,” Lieberman wrote.

The letter was directed to U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal of the Southern District of Texas in Houston, who is chairwoman of the Rules Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal judiciary’s policy-making arm.

Rosenthal did not return calls for comment. “We do plan to respond,” said Karen Redmond, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, but she declined to discuss the issues raised by Lieberman, ID-Conn.

The senator’s query comes just as the Judicial Conference of the United States is about to hold its semiannual meeting on March 17 in Washington.

The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system provides nationwide access to most records in district courts, including briefs, motions and judicial rulings. The courts charge a fee to the public for time online and 8 cents per page for documents downloaded from the system. By 2004, more than 15 million cases were on the electronic filing system, and 100,000 lawyers had filed documents via the Internet to the courts. Many of the records included Social Security numbers, dates of birth and more. That material was to be stripped out.

‘Mistakes happen’

Carl Malamud, an Internet radio pioneer, began Public.Resource.Org in 2007 to make free government information available on the Internet. He has also turned his eye to the PACER system.

“For the past six months, we have conducted an audit of 32 district courts over the secrecy issue,” he said.

He said the group has found plenty of violations of a requirement that lawyers strip out confidential information before filing and that the courts do not screen records. “The initial positions of clerks is that it is the responsibility of the attorney to make sure the data is clean,” he said. “Our point is that mistakes happen.”

Malamud said he wants to see the courts more involved in screening. All of the 32 district courts his group has audited have begun to respond, he said, but he promised to continue to press the issue. His latest target is the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.