Panel urges access to public data

Committee reverses proposed restrictions

January 09, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Reversing a proposal that would have restricted access to court files, a judicial advisory panel has drafted a plan to keep the records open to the public -- while urging officials to plan for a future when more records are available by computer from remote locations.

The Committee on Access to Court Records also is calling for the Maryland court system to make its paper records uniformly accessible across the state, but cautions that privacy issues will arise as more records are filed and maintained electronically.

The 18-member committee was formed in December 2000, a month after an earlier panel proposed sharply curbing access to the computerized records that are used for everything from background checks to routine news reporting. The earlier committee's recommendations would have restricted access to court records to police, government agencies and lawyers, and required anyone else to explain what they planned to do with the information and prove that they were engaged in a legitimate activity.

That panel, made up of five court officials and a state lawyer, also would have allowed court clerks to set limits on the number of records a visitor could review in a day. The proposal prompted an outcry from representatives of news organizations and the 3,000 businesses and individuals who depend on court records.

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, appointed the new committee, which included representatives of a variety of businesses that routinely use the records, such as banks and private detectives, the news media, elected officials and open-government advocates.

The new committee's recommendations are receiving a better reception.

"I'm pleased that they've recognized that this information belongs to the citizens of Maryland," Michael S. Powell, president of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association and managing editor of the Frederick News-Post, said yesterday.

The committee is expected to make some changes to its rough draft -- only about half of its members attended a meeting Monday -- and vote electronically on it this month before turning the report over to Bell. A 30-day public comment period will follow. The Court of Appeals could then adopt the recommendations as policy.

The committee's chairman, retired Circuit Judge Paul E. Alpert, said he doubted there would be much public opposition to his group's proposal because "there was such a cross-section of the public represented" on the task force that has been working for nearly a year.

In its draft, the committee focused on broad principles, suggesting that current access to records be maintained, including the computerized Judicial Information System that is available to news organizations, businesses and individuals that subscribe to it. The panel left for others, however, to determine specific rules surrounding public access to court files.

The committee pointed out that a future in which more records are computerized and can be viewed from remote locations could bring other issues. For example, it noted that as more computerized civil filings become accessible, the court should consider privacy concerns over bank account numbers and similar information. Some of those details are now removed from computerized federal cases.

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