Government behind the curtain Move to close access to arrest warrants after recent case could backfire.

December 30, 1997

RARELY IS IT a good idea for government to operate in secret. The Founding Fathers understood this when they drafted the Bill of Rights. They wanted to ensure the public's right to know how its legal system operated.

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is by a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both," James Madison wrote. "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power of knowledge."

Such philosophy differentiated the United States from the Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes. In "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union," The Sun's Scott Shane wrote that the Soviet leaders' "grip on information was a key source of their power, but by the 1980s it had become a crippling handicap for themselves and their country."

We make note of the Founding Fathers and Soviet failings in light of a move by a Maryland judicial rules subcommittee to deny public access to unserved arrest warrants.

VTC Their reason for doing so may be born of good intention. They don't want criminal defendants to learn of their wanted status before the law gets to them.

This occurred earlier this month when Kenneth Allen White of Lebanon, Pa., wanted for the 1985 murder of Sandra Lee Taylor in Howard County, eluded police for days after being tipped to his arrest warrant by an attorney's letter soliciting his business. Judges fear that evidence could be destroyed or police could be endangered in similar instances.

But before lawmakers act to shut off records, they should know that doing so will sacrifice freedom to information, which guarantees other freedoms that the Founders sought desperately to preserve.

The subcommittee could just as well recall the case of Francisco Rodriguez, an accomplice in the 1990 murder of State Trooper Theodore Wolf, of Glen Burnie. Rodriguez' sweetheart plea deal was kept secret until recently. Prosecutors wanted to seal the deal, fearing public outrage. Government that operates behind a curtain creates much greater problems than government that does not.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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