Court Halts Electronic Records Case

WASHINGTON (03/07/2000) - The legal battle to stop U.S. federal agencies from deleting electronic records is over, and the agencies have won. But the lawyer who led the effort to save digital documents said he will renew his fight on a different front.

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday declined to hear the case of Public Citizen v.

Carlin, sinking the public interest organization's hopes that it might force agencies to save electronic documents, including e-mail messages, in an easy-to-search, easy-to-access electronic form.

Michael Tankersley, a lawyer for Public Citizen, said he plans to begin petitioning agencies and taking other steps to persuade them to preserve electronic records.

John Carlin, national archivist, said the Supreme Court's decision should end three years of legal skirmishing regarding the fate of electronic records. He said the National Archives and Records Administration he heads now can "continue in an orderly way to develop practical methods for managing and preserving records in the Electronic Era."

The Supreme Court's decision leaves intact a NARA policy that lets agencies delete electronic records if paper copies have been made for permanent storage.

The Supreme Court did not say why it declined to hear the case.

In 1997, Public Citizen won a federal court ruling that the original electronic versions of records must be saved if the records have historic value. The government appealed the ruling in 1998, and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it. Public Citizen then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Tankersley and others contend that the electronic version of records contain information that is often not preserved when the records are printed on paper.

Such information may indicate who reviewed a memo or who participated in a policy decision. Electronic records are also much easier than paper ones to search, and they can be accessed by researchers online.

Government lawyers argued that many federal agencies did not have the electronic recordkeeping systems capable of properly saving electronic records.

During the years of litigation, however, electronic record storage capabilities improved, and NARA policies about preserving electronic records evolved.

Tankersley took some credit for raising awareness of electronic storage problems.

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