Federal agencies may purge records from computers once copies of the original documents are made, an appellate court has ruled.
The decision Friday was the first major setback for the advocacy group Public Citizen in a records-preservation battle that began a decade ago with an effort to keep the White House from destroying records of the Iran-Contra affair.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned a lower court's ban on destruction of records.
Public Citizen sued John Carlin, archivist of the United States, and executive branch agencies in 1996 over Carlin's ruling the year before authorizing federal agencies to "print and delete" from government computers electronic mail or word processing records.
Carlin's position makes such orders applicable to all federal agencies. His order allowed paper, microfilm or electronic retrieval copying.
Public Citizen, with the American Library Association, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and other research groups, sued on grounds Carlin's order violated the U.S. Records Disposal Act and was "arbitrary and capricious."
The court, in a decision written by Judge Douglas Ginsburg, ruled that the order did not violate the act, which gave Carlin wide discretion to set standards and methods for destroying documents.
Essentially, the court said, the plaintiffs did not question Carlin's right to order destruction of reproduced original computer records but argued that Carlin erred in not requiring electronic storage.
"Our focus, therefore, is upon whether the archivist acted arbitrarily and capriciously . . .," the judges wrote.
They ruled that, although Carlin wrote in issuing his order of the benefits of electronic over paper record-keeping, his failure to order it was neither arbitrary nor capricious.
It was uncertain whether Public Citizen would appeal the loss.