The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is, wisely, planning the future of its enormous collection of relatively recent court records. The pertinent regulation, a “records disposition schedule” first issued in 1995 by the Judicial Conference of the United States in consultation with NARA, commits the Archives to keeping, permanently, all case files dated 1969 or earlier; all case files dated 1970 or later in which a trial was held, and “any civil case file which NARA has determined in consultation with court officials to have historical value.” Other files may be destroyed 20 years after they enter the federal repository. The question before NARA, then, is whether to destroy nearly all of the records for cases terminated after 1969, keeping litigation files from those years only for those few cases in which adjudication was by trial (5% or less of the docket since 1984), or whether to deem some or all non-trial cases as having “historical value” and preserve them for future research and use. The regulation appears to embrace a view that historical court records are usually of only low or moderate value, insufficiently important to justify the resource allocation needed to preserve them all. In this brief article, we hope to demonstrate that this premise is incorrect. Court records have always been vital, and irreplaceable, sources for historical research. Made more accessible, as modern technology now allows, court records can become central sources for much broader use for legal researchers; for historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists; for students and teachers; and for advocates and policymakers. In Part I of this Article, we present a model for such use—the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse, a new web-based resource built primarily around digitized court records, sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis. Accessible at http://clearinghouse.wustl.edu, the Clearinghouse collects, indexes, and makes publicly available for research and observation a growing universe of civil rights cases and the settlements and court orders those cases have produced, which regulate government and private entities in myriad important ways. We are working with NARA to include dockets and other court documents from the National Archives that might well be destroyed, someday, under the current document retention policy. The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse illustrates the new opportunity to make court records, including NARA's court record, ever more useful to-and therefore used by-a broad array of people. It would be a great shame to pretermit such uses by ill-conceived archive destruction.
Schlanger, Margo. "Using Court Records for Research, Teaching, and Policymaking: The Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse." D. Lieberman, co-author. UMKC L. Rev. 75, no. 1 (2006): 155-69.