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One Computer in Tax Court Record Room

Posted on Feb. 6, 2023

Prior to the pandemic I stopped by the Tax Court record room a few times a year to research cases. As noted in prior blog posts, here, here (with links to additional posts on the subject) and here, the public records created in Tax Court cases are available to the public only by traveling to Washington, DC or by calling the Tax Court record section and ordering the documents. The exception to this rule is access to Court orders and decisions which are available for free through the Court’s electronic docket.

Prior to the pandemic, if you were able to visit the record section of the Tax Court located on the ground floor of the court building, in a small public room a table existed with two computer terminals that could access all of the unsealed documents in Tax Court cases. As discussed in one of the blog posts linked above, for long stretches of time during the pandemic, access to this room was unavailable because the Tax Court was closed to the public leaving phone requests as the only way to access the public records in Tax Court cases. Post pandemic the room still exists, but it now contains only one computer instead of two.

I wonder why the Tax Court decided to further limit access to its documents by removing one of the two computers available in the records room. In my recent visit, I was the only person in the room during the two hours I spent looking at the case files of recently dismissed deficiency cases. No one else sought to use the computer which was good from my perspective since I would not have wanted to make someone sit for up to two hours to access the computer while I monopolized it, but I also would not have wanted to relinquish my limited time with this computer to someone else.

Looking at the log book the court maintains for the computer, I noticed that basically everyone signing in on the same page with me was a reporter in the tax press. In the past when I have visited the computers in the record room, I have sometimes used one at the same time as someone else used the other and sometimes used them alone. I have not done a study of how much those computers are used but I know that when I go there I am usually on a tight schedule and would not like to wait for someone else to finish their research.

I write this post for two reasons. First, I continue to hope that the Tax Court will open up electronic access to the public records in its cases. For the reasons discussed in the blog posts linked above, I think it is possible to make the information truly public while protecting the information of individual taxpayers that needs to be kept private. I continue to wonder what reason exists for not making the unsealed documents in entity cases completely available since privacy of individual identity information cannot possibly be the basis for keeping these records so difficult to access.

Second, I write to alert others that even going to the Tax Court to look at documents is now more difficult than prior to the pandemic. If someone reaches the sole computer before you do, you must wait an unlimited amount of time to access that computer.

I reread the Tax Court’s Congressional Budget Justification for Fiscal Year 2023 to see if it contained any reason for the reduction in the number of computers available to access court records. It did not. It does provide the following statement lauding increased access to the Court’s docket as a result of DAWSON. I can only say I do not know what the Court defines as increased access since the access to documents under the DAWSON system seems identical to the system that existed prior to DAWSON. Here is the Court’s statement:

The Court marked the first year of DAWSON (Docket Access Within a Secure Online Network),13 which was launched on December 28, 2020. DAWSON is an open-source, cloud-based application that is mobile-friendly. The system’s implementation included a new feature to electronically file a petition to start a new case, which has proved particularly beneficial during the pandemic.
During the first year in operation, over 750 features were added and over 450 bugs were addressed. The system now permits the public to search and view Court orders and opinions without a fee. [It did so prior to the existence of DAWSON as well.] The Court recognizes the importance of access to case records and has prioritized the programming issues related to sealed documents and sealed cases. As functionality is added the Court will continue to realize greater efficiencies (e.g., related to consolidated cases, minute orders, and calendars). Overall, DAWSON continues to make the Court more accessible for taxpayers, practitioners, and the public. (emphasis added)

This annual report was issued on February 28, 2022. The report focused on activity at the Court during 2021. I anticipate a new report will be issued at the end of this month. Perhaps it will provide additional guidance regarding access to the Court’s records remotely or in the building.

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