Wednesday, August 21, 2002

state court records

How much information should be available to the public on civil and criminal cases in state courts? How much information can be accessed online, or in person at a state courthouse? Should there be different standards for civil and criminal cases? How much information about the individuals involved should be disclosed? This Nando Times article discusses a report issued by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) earlier today. The Nando Times article remarks about some of the differences between particular states, and some of the unintended disclosures of information that can be discovered by the mere presences of cases --
All of these court records can have unintended consequences. Some courts delete obviously sensitive data like social security numbers, but one could also find bank account numbers as well as a person's name and address, information that could help an identity thief.

There's also information that is almost never sealed by definition, but could still be sensitive or embarrassing, like accusations of battling spouses in a divorce case or the names of biological parents in an adoption.

Victim's rights advocates have called for taking spousal abuse and family law cases off-line to respect the privacy of a battered wife or abused child. The wife's address, frequently found within court documents, could help a stalker.
The CDT's nationwide survey shows a very wide range of standards and views as to the types of information that is accessible to the public online or off:
CDT recently conducted a nationwide survey of the practices of state and local courts in making information public via the Internet. We found a wide variety of practices and policies. This is attributable partly to our federal system, under which state and local governments are the laboratories of democracy. But even taking federalism into account, the process of putting court records online has proceeded in remarkably disparate ways. Courts have made records available in many forms ranging from statewide services to many instances of single jurisdictions providing access to their records. Some states provide access to both criminal and civil records while others restrict users' access to records that may contain sensitive personal information. And while some states offer free comprehensive access to their court records, many others charge users a range of fees for online access.
The CDT also writes about an effort to try to develop some standards that all states could adopt, under a project funded by the State Justice Institute. While it looks as though a fair bit of effort has gone into this Model Policy on Public Access project, a quick look through it raised a few red flags in my mind. When I have a chance to read it more in depth, I'll try to address some of those issues. The latest newsletter (pdf) of the agency funding this project also caused me a bit of concern regarding its future. An opening headline reading "SJI Struggles to Survive" will do that.

Where does Delaware stand when it comes to sharing court records with the public, and how reliable does the CDT survey appear? The CDT's description of public availability to Delaware's court records looks pretty accurate. Note that there's not a mention of Family Court records -- disclosure of that court's information is very limited. I'd add that access to criminal and civil dockets for Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas cases is available at the New Castle, Kent, and Sussex County Court Houses free of charge. As for the reliability of the information provided in the CDT survey, I recognized the email address provided with their information as that of the Chief Technology Director of Superior Court of the State of Delaware. I would call that a pretty good source.

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