The home page for the U.S. District Court for Alabama's middle district cheerily offers a "Kids' Corner" where "kids of all ages" can find out more about the federal court system. But if you go to the court's home page for information on filing a judicial misconduct complaint, you'll only find it if you click on the "judges information" tab.
Nebraska's federal district court site, on the other hand, has a tab specifically labeled "judicial misconduct and disability" on its home page. But its "kids' corner" is pretty well hidden under a "community/educational outreach" tab.
Those randomly picked examples of inconsistency between federal trial court Web sites may become a thing of the past because of a recently created "website toolbox" that went out to all 94 district courts late last month.
While not requiring total conformity to one template, the goal is to make the sites "more available and accessible" and to bring "greater uniformity and consistency." Those are the words of a memo sent to judges with the toolbox by Judge D. Brock Hornby Jr. of Portland, Maine, chair of the Judicial Conference's Judicial Branch Committee, and James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Other components of the administrative office, including the office of public affairs, also worked on the initiative.
Hornby said in an interview the idea for the toolbox and for greater consistency grew out of a series of "judges and journalists" dialogues co-sponsored by the Freedom Forum over the last decade, as well as other occasions when journalists, lawyers and others have complained about uneven and difficult-to-navigate Web sites as an obstacle to public knowledge about the work of the courts.
One of the biggest complaints, Hornby said, is difficulty in finding court opinions on district court sites. Some direct viewers to PACER, others send them to CourtWeb, others have a page on "opinions of interest," some are hopelessly out of date, while still others offer not a clue about how to access an opinion from that court. According to the memo, the E-Government Act requires giving access to "the substance of all written opinions issued by the court" in a searchable format.
"More and more people are learning about the courts remotely from their PCs or laptops," said Hornby, who has also lamented the decline in news coverage of courts as traditional media cut back. Making court web sites as user-friendly as possible helps the public and press interact with the courts. As his memo states, "Inaccurate, out-of-date, or inaccessible website content is a disservice to the judiciary and to site users."
How are the notoriously independent district courts reacting to the suggestion for a measure of conformity? "We've had an enormously positive response," said Hornby, suggesting that the courts have been looking for guidance on improving their sites.