Officials appeal for continued e-signature exemptions

Federal courts and the Environmental Protection Agency are urging the Bush administration to maintain language that exempts documents relating to court cases and hazardous materials from a law that gives legal weight to electronic signatures.

In comments filed earlier this month, judicial officials told the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that they want more time to promulgate their own rules for expanding the use of electronic-based documents before being forced to comply with the 2000 Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (ESIGN) Act.

That statute gave legal weight to transactions such as mortgages or loans completed entirely electronically. But it also included exemptions in six categories so that lawmakers could better study the potential impact of the move to e-signatures.

NTIA is collecting comments on those six categories and will report to Congress by June. The categories include: court records; wills and testaments; domestic and family law records; contracts governed by state commercial law; cancellation notices for utility services; cancellation notices for health or life insurance benefits; property foreclosures, evictions and default notices; product-recall notices; and shipping papers for hazardous materials and dangerous goods.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said its exemptions should be maintained. "The federal judiciary continues its efforts to consider how best to balance the needs of the courts, litigants (including consumers) and the public in the specific content of judicial processes," the office stated. "Removing [the] ESIGN exception ... might create uncertainties" in those arenas.

Judicial rules already allow the use of e-signatures on certain records. But the office noted that eliminating the ESIGN exemption and providing full legal acceptance of e-signatures for all court documents could raise concerns about issues that "may be peculiar to court contexts," such as ensuring that due-process rights of criminals are protected.

EPA also argued that revoking the exemption for documents concerning hazardous materials would inhibit the agency's ability to implement legal mandates to ensure that products such as pesticides are properly handled.

Under ESIGN rules, the EPA noted that labels for pesticides could be electronically stored but added that "unlabeled pesticide containers and application devices themselves present dangers" because workers could not instantly identify a product and might misapply it. The exemption also ensures that certain materials are transported and tracked with proper identification, EPA said.

But some opponents of the exemptions argue that they discourage innovation and stalls advances in the covered sectors. University of Cincinnati law professor James O'Reilly, for example, told NTIA that the ESIGN exemption for hazardous waste is hampering improved efficiency in the sector when it comes to transporting materials.