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The Maine state judiciary announced this week that it will begin posting its court records online for public access.
The decision – announced June 7 during a public hearing on access to electronic court records – followed multiple rounds of comments submitted by the New England First Amendment Coalition, media groups and other open government advocates.
The court had been considering a recommendation by a state task force to prohibit the members of the public from accessing records online, requiring them instead to travel to individual courthouse to view case files.
But in a surprise announcement during the most recent hearing, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said the court would reject that recommendation and instead implement a system similar to PACER which provides access to federal court documents.
“The Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s announcement that all public court records will be made available to the public online is great news for everyone who is concerned with an open, transparent and accountable court system,” said NEFAC’s Sigmund Schutz, an attorney at Preti Flaherty.
Schutz and Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director, both provided testimony at the June 7 hearing to discuss remaining questions about how the online system will be implemented. Chief among these questions are what fee will be charged to access the records and what types of cases will be made public and to whom.
Silverman provided to the court two examples of online systems being being used by other state courts. Massachusetts provides only limited information while Connecticut allows public access to most case files. This difference in accessibility, he said, can have a significant effect on a reporter’s ability to investigate misconduct and corruption.
But while the focus is often on journalists, it’s important to remember that the right to access judicial records is not exclusively a matter of journalism, Silverman said after the hearing.
“Residents of all backgrounds, such as researchers, students and educators can provide valuable insights from easier access to judicial records,” he said. “We have a tremendous opportunity in Maine to not only accommodate the interests of these citizens, but to be a national leader in transparency.”
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
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Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.