Public Citizen asks Supreme Court to review electronic-records case

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

A national lobbying group has asked the Supreme Court to review the way government officials discard electronic records and e-mail, claiming that federal agencies should not be allowed to destroy such records as a general practice.

Public Citizen, in its petition, has asked the Supreme Court to reverse an Aug. 6 decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that upheld a government policy allowing agencies to delete such records provided they've kept paper copies.

National Archivist John Carlin issued the regulation, also known as General Records Schedule 20, in 1996. Government officials said a records-deletion policy is needed to prevent computer systems from becoming overloaded or crashing.

The appeals court decision struck down an October 1998 ruling from U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, who said Carlin acted illegally when he issued orders allowing federal agencies to destroy, without review, all types of electronic records if paper copies exist.

Last April, Friedman revisited his decision, ruling that Carlin “flagrantly” violated the order by continuing the practice.

“The format of records is clearly relevant to their value,” said Michael Tankersley, an attorney for Public Citizen, in statement sent to the First Amendment Center. “The archivist's decision to treat it as irrelevant deprives the public and future generations of access to important government records that are increasingly being created with word processing and electronic mail technologies.”

National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said that officials there couldn't comment directly on a pending legal case.