Are US Courts ‘Going Dark’?

An anonymous reader writes: Judge Stephen Wm. Smith argues that questions about the government’s “golden age of surveillance” miss an equally significant trend: that the U.S. Courts are “going dark”. In a new editorial, he writes that “Before the digital age, executed search warrants were routinely placed on the court docket available for public inspection,” but after the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, more than 30,000 secret court surveillance orders were given just in 2006. He predicts that today’s figure is more than double, “And those figures do not include surveillance orders obtained by state and local authorities, who handle more than 15 times the number of felony investigations that the feds do. Based on that ratio, the annual rate of secret surveillance orders by federal and state courts combined could easily exceed half a million.”

Judge Smith also cites an increase in cases — even civil cases — that are completely sealed, but also an increase in “private arbitration” and other ways of resolving disputes which are shielded from the public eye. “Employers, Internet service providers, and consumer lenders have led a mass exodus from the court system. By the click of a mouse or tick of a box, the American public is constantly inveigled to divert the enforcement of its legal rights to venues closed off from public scrutiny. Justice is becoming privatized, like so many other formerly public goods turned over to invisible hands — electricity, water, education, prisons, highways, the military.” The judge’s conclusion? “Over the last 40 years, secrecy in all aspects of the judicial process has risen to literally unprecedented levels. “

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