Rules proposed to open court records to public

Computerized data would be included

January 14, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A judicial panel proposing what would be Maryland's first rules detailing public access to court records is recommending that, with few exceptions, courthouse records be presumed to be open, including the burgeoning fields of computerized and electronic information.

The proposed rules are intended to protect individual privacy while keeping open everything from property ownership and divorce squabbles to criminal case files. At the same time, the rules would close access to some information now available - for example, blacking out all but the last four digits of a Social Security number.

They also would establish a uniform way to handle demands for large amounts of electronic data, such as a request by a newspaper for computer disks containing all drunken-driving cases that went to court in a given year.

The panel consisted of three Court of Appeals judges.

Overall, the proposed rules were generally well-received in five critiques received by midnight Monday, when the public comment period ended. The Court of Appeals, which sets court rules, is scheduled to review and possibly adopt them on Feb. 9.

But the organizations that wrote critiques also raised concerns about some of the proposed changes. All of those groups rely on the availability of court records.

Their concerns included shielding the first five digits of Social Security numbers, keeping confidential the home addresses and private telephone numbers of state employees and the lack of deadlines for responding to requests for computerized information.

"The big picture is very good. There are some particulars that need to be changed," said Carol Melamed, vice president of government affairs for The Washington Post, who examined the proposed rules for the 160-newspaper Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association.

The newspapers, including The Sun, oppose several proposed closures, including a blanket closure of medical records, which news organizations have used to examine the regulation of doctors.

In the past, access to many public records required a trip to the courthouse, or more than one courthouse. Now, commercial data compilers sell information that can be used to perform a criminal background check on a prospective nanny or a financial check on a would-be tenant.

"With electronic access, where you can rummage through files with a click, that practical obscurity is disappearing," said Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, who wrote the draft rules.

The proposed rule changes have been four years in the making. In 2000, recommendations by a committee of government officials to sharply restrict access to computerized information met an outcry from commercial interests and the news media.

A second, more broadly based committee included businesses that rely on court records. In 2002, that group recommended making paper records uniformly accessible across the state and urged the courts to look ahead to the day when lawyers can file documents electronically and when the demand increases to make records available by computer from distant locations.

The proposed changes, which incorporate many of those suggestions, satisfies court clerks, said Scott MacGlashan, president of the Maryland Circuit Court Clerks Association.

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