Supreme Court rules in favor of NARA on electronic records suit

Supreme Court rules in favor of NARA on electronic records suit

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

In a one-sentence ruling this month, the Supreme Court effectively ended the four-year legal battle over the future of government electronic records.

The high court rejected a petition from Public Citizen, a Washington public-interest group that had challenged the National Archives and Records Administration's General Records Schedule 20.

The organization had appealed a lower-court ruling that reaffirmed GRS-20, a NARA rule that lets agencies delete electronic records if those records are stored in another form.

Public Citizen argued that GRS-20 was tantamount to letting agencies print and delete electronic records, resulting in the loss of important information.

Scott Armstrong, a Washington journalist and one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the outcome will be a 'Carlin gap''missing records during archivist John W. Carlin's tenure as agencies increasingly do more business electronically.

'NARA has not been able to get its act together,' Armstrong said. 'They've not understood the basics of electronic records management.'

Robert Gellman, a Washington privacy and information policy consultant, said that with the lawsuit dead, 'the question is what Archives is going to do now.'

NARA has been paying more attention to electronic records over the past two years, but there is still a lack of guidance, and agencies lack technical capabilities to deal with electronic records, Gellman said.

NARA officials said the court's decision reaffirmed the agency's authority. Carlin said he is grateful for the 'renewed opportunity we now have to continue in an orderly way to develop practical methods for managing and preserving records in the electronic era and ensuring ready access to them.'

NARA this year issued guidance that goes beyond GRS-20, he said. 'Our efforts to help agencies meet preservation and access needs for records in all media will aggressively continue,' he said.

Michael L. Miller, director of NARA's Modern Records Program, said many of the issues raised by the Public Citizen v. Carlin case are part of an overall restructuring of how NARA deals with records, particularly electronic records [GCN, Aug. 30, 1999, Page 12].

Asking agencies

Public Citizen lawyers acknowledged that the Supreme Court's ruling makes it nearly impossible to continue on the legal front.

But the group is looking at other strategies to urge agencies to preserve their electronic records and change NARA's policy, Public Citizen senior attorney Michael Tankersley said.

The group is 'very concerned that NARA's position will result in creating a large period in which the records of the federal government are incomplete and inaccessible because, although originally created electronically, the only records preserved are paper copies,' he said.

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