Court will archive its sealed files on CD

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri this year will put nearly 300,000 pages of sealed documents on CD-ROM to relieve a storage crunch.

The problem became apparent about two years ago when the court was preparing to move to the new Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse in St. Louis. Moving almost 200 boxes of old records to a new facility did not make sense, but there was nowhere else to put them, said court clerk Jim Woodward.

'The National Archives is our long-term records storage provider,' Woodward said. 'But they will not take sealed documents.'

Sealed documents are not open to the public and cannot be filed with the public material held by the nation's records-keeper. 'So National Archives policy is no sealed documents,' he said.
Though they are not open to the public and are rarely used, they cannot be destroyed. The documents are, after all, official records.

'Our intention is to destroy the paper but not to destroy documents,' Woodward said.

The court issued a request for proposals last month for scanning the documents and duplicating them on CD-ROM. Proposals are due June 17.

'This is plan B,' Woodward said. One company already attempted the job but underestimated its complexity and was not able to consistently produce adequate copies.

'Some of these documents are not in good shape,' Woodward said. 'In some cases, you have to enhance the duplicate.'

Bidders in the current round must provide references for three previous government or comparable commercial projects.

The documents will be converted to TIFF images using Alchemy Gold Release 6 from Information Management Research Inc. of Englewood, Colo. Alchemy Gold creates searchable databases compiled from elements in a variety of formats, with 10-to-1 compression. Court records will not be compressed, however.

The work will take three phases. The first phase will include about 99,000 pages of criminal records from eight active district judges. The second phase will cover 70,500 pages of criminal records from nine inactive judges, and the final phase will include 129,000 pages from civil cases.

Because the documents are sealed, background checks by U.S. Marshals are required for all employees with access to them during scanning. This is a routine requirement for outside workers at the courthouse, from caterers to workers setting rented chairs, Woodward said. 'It's not an extraordinary measure.'

The problem with sealed documents developed because for years parties were allowed to permanently seal documents. With no end date for keeping them sealed, 'they just sit there,' Woodward said.

'Every document filed now under seal has a date at which the seal will end. We're not doing that to ourselves any more, but we did it for 40 years.'

An alternative to scanning would be for judges to review sealed documents and open those that no longer need to be confidential, so they could be shipped off to the National Archives.
'It's not a worthwhile use of a judge's time, and I don't think it's a very efficient solution to that problem,' Woodward said.

He said he is not aware of any other courts using this method to reduce storage.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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