Records access issue to be studied by judges

Electronic files at heart of debate over proposal

January 07, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's top judges agreed yesterday that a small group of them will try to unravel the complexities in a proposal to provide equal public access to paper and electronic court records, and will make suggestions to the full court.

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, named himself and Judges Lynne A. Battaglia and Alan M. Wilner to sort through the proposal to decide how to proceed. The decision was made at the end of an afternoon discussion about the recommendations from an 18-member court-appointed panel.

An hour into deliberations, it became clear that different judges had focused on different potential implications of the proposal, had a variety of questions and were unclear on how a policy would be enacted.

The news media and those who buy the court system's data want the computerized records to remain available and the database expanded to cover all state courts. The information is used for things such as landlords' reference checks, employee criminal background searches and news investigations.

"Is electronic access the same as paper access? In theory it is, the access is the same. The users have different needs," Battaglia said.

But Judge Dale R. Cathell said that for electronic records, he wants the court's needs taken care of and does not think the court should fret over what commercial users want.

The proposed policy recommends making public access the same for electronic and paper records, a key point as more people want more information readily available. Some buyers prefer information sorted in a particular way, but some court clerks and administrators said that could prove burdensome.

Several members of the committee that spent a little more than a year devising the recommendations said they were not terribly disappointed the judges did not adopt their proposal yesterday, noting that the issue is complicated.

"It is a terrifically difficult issue to grasp, I think the judges realize that," said Alice N. Lucan, a lawyer who represented commercial data compilers.

This was the second Maryland panel to examine the issues. Recommendations by a panel of government officials in 2000 to sharply restrict access to computerized data were pilloried by business interests and the news media. That panel then advocated convening the second, more broadly based group, which includes a private investigator, a banker, landlords, members of the news media.

Maryland's situation is hardly unique. Around the country, states are grappling with issues of electronic filing and electronic access to records, deciding whether paper and computer records should be treated the same, what if any information should not be disseminated and how to give access to electronic records.

Iowa, for example, has separate rules for electronic access, Missouri operates an online database for all courts and Vermont provides no bulk information.

Bell said he hopes to move quickly on the proposal. Whatever becomes policy will affect every Maryland court in some way.

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