National Archives Reappraising U.S. District Court Records

The National Archives and Records Administration is completing a multi-year nationwide reappraisal of the historical significance of our nation’s court records. Recent articles and postings have led to some confusion on what is occurring. In reality, the National Archives has developed objective criteria by which District Court case files are identified for permanent retention.

Archives appraisal staff led a nationwide project, meeting with District Court judges and clerks, legal scholars and historians, reviewing files for each type of civil case to determine the value, having the scholars and historians review the appraisal and recommended disposition, and publishing the schedule in the Federal Register seeking public comment.

Under the previous schedule for District Court civil case files, only the case files that went to trial were scheduled as permanent records. Non-trial cases were appraised as temporary unless they were specifically identified to be “historically significant.” The National Archives believed that non-trial cases often had historical significance, but were not being identified.

Under this new revised schedule, there are now a large number of non-trial case files that are permanent, which previously would have had a temporary designation. Among these are cases involving civil rights, the environment, state reapportionment, patents, selective service, the death penalty, and numerous other categories. In addition, all class action cases and multi-district litigation cases are now permanent, as well as other cases specifically identified by the Courts or by the National Archives. The remaining non-trial case files are temporary with a 15-year retention.

The new schedule will result in a significantly larger number of cases being retained as permanent. For the period of 1970-2009, 1.4 million new cases will now be preserved that would have been classified as temporary under the old system. This represents a 300% increase of permanent records over the old records schedule.

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