Pennsylvania courts consider new rules on access to files

Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania court records have a readership any writer would envy, with 59 million state court dockets accessed online last year alone.

That’s an enormous amount of information, and the court system has been developing new rules about what the public should be able to see in common pleas and appellate court files, both online and in the courthouse.

An 18-page proposal was unveiled last week, and court officials are seeking public feedback before the Supreme Court decides what to adopt.

“There was a tremendous amount of research that went into this, and thoughtfulness, in order to develop – and try to arrive at – the best balance that we could come to,” said Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, who helped lead the group.

The court system wants to limit or prevent access to certain sensitive information, and standardize practices across the state.

The report said practices vary considerably – one county might put all divorce records online for free, while the neighboring county might not.

Decisions about whether sensitive information such as a Social Security number ends up online, the report found, “currently depends on geography.”

The policy would not mandate that any new records get posted online. Officials say they want to keep some material from showing up in the file, where possible, and if that material must be included, to list it on a “confidential information form” that would not be publicly available.

“We’re going to prevent it as it comes in the door, not try to catch it as it’s leaving,” said David Price, a court system staff attorney who worked on the draft policy.

The group has suggested that prohibited information should include Social Security, bank account and driver’s license numbers; the names and birth dates of children unless they are criminal defendants; and details about victims of abuse, including home addresses, contact information, their workplaces and their work schedules.

Documents that can’t be released to the public include financial information such as tax forms and credit card statements, school records of children, medical and psychological records, child protective services records and inventories of marital property.

Also prohibited from public release are many types of family court transcripts and case records for proceedings that occur after courts have been asked to step in because someone has become physically or mentally incapacitated.

“Before it gets out there, we need to just be very, very careful,” Jubelirer said. “And that’s what this policy is trying to do. It’s trying to balance the concerns that arise for these children in divorce cases, or custody disputes with, obviously, the importance of the transparency of court activities, and to maintain the public confidence in the judicial system and in the fairness and equity of the decision-making process.”

Still available under the proposal, but not posted online, would be names, addresses or phone numbers of jurors, witnesses (except expert witnesses) and victims in criminal cases, as well as transcripts and case records in family court.

Finally, the proposed policy would give the state court administrator, subject to approval by the chief justice, the ability to prevent release of “information presenting a risk to personal security, personal privacy, or the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice.”

Price said the court system has included similar language in existing policies about district court and electronic records, and it has yet to be used.

“The exception is built in there because we really don’t know what’s coming around the corner,” Price said. “We wanted a sort of a safety valve that, if something creeped up today, we would have an efficient mechanism to deal with that.”

The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said that provision caused it concern, along with proposals to treat electronic access differently than access at the courthouse, fees to compensate for staff time relating to providing public access, and limits on basic information about minors.

Terry Mutchler, former director of the state Office of Open Records and now a private-practice lawyer specializing in open records-related issues, said courts have a tradition of public access to records.

“This is the last stop for fairness and justice, and court records are, by their nature, public,” Mutchler said. “What is a security risk to one person is a black-letter public record, like salary, to another.” She plans to share her opinions about the proposed policy with the AOPC.

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