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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently criticized aspects of a plan to implement an online court case management system in Maine, saying proposed policies do “little for the public” and unnecessarily limit access to judicial records.
The draft policies are part of a $15 million effort by the state to digitize electronic records that are currently only available by hard copy at individual courthouses.
The Maine Judicial Branch Transparency and Privacy Task Force is currently considering policies for the system that would limit most of the public to docket information, the equivalent to an index to a case file. The court and clerk’s office, however, would have access to all records and participants in proceedings would have access to their individual case records.
“Our position is that any already public record, available to anyone now at the clerk’s office in paper copy, should also be public in digital form after the court system moves to an online case management system,” argued NEFAC in a Sept. 27 letter sent on behalf of the coalition and other transparency advocates. “Other courts successfully have done what we urge the Task Force to recommend, including Maine’s probate courts, the federal courts, and courts in other states.”
NEFAC board member Sigmund Schutz, an attorney at Preti Flaherty in Portland, Me., drafted the letter. Organizations including the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and the Society of Professional Journalists also joined.
The groups explained that under the proposed policies, for example, the public could find out online that a police officer filed an affidavit in support of a search warrant but would have to drive to the courthouse to actually view the affidavit. The public could find out online that the governor sued the attorney general, but could only learn of the reason by traveling to the court to view the complaint.
“None of these records are confidential, and they should not be subject to artificial barriers to access by making it materially harder for the public to find and view them,” according to the letter.
Maine courts should instead, the groups wrote, embrace technology and use it to provide more public access, not less. Benefits of online access included increased government oversight and more efficient news reporting.
“The court’s online case management system will be the equivalent of a virtual clerk’s office,” according to the letter. “The public should enjoy the same access to records through the virtual clerk’s office that it would get by ringing a bell at the counter at any of Maine’s courthouses to ask for the public court file maintained in a manila folder on paper.”
NEFAC regularly drafts and joins advocacy letters to defend First Amendment freedoms and the public’s right to know. The coalition previously advocated for similar access to judicial records in Massachusetts, testifying for more transparency in the state’s courts and suggesting improvements to proposed rules restricting online records.
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.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.