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Amendment makes court records open again

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   COLORADO   ·   Secret Courts   ·   July 16, 2007 Amendment makes…

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   COLORADO   ·   Secret Courts   ·   July 16, 2007


Amendment makes court records open again

  • New directive is described a partial win for open access after a 2005 judicial order led to a clampdown on court records.

July 16, 2007  ·   An amendment to a 2005 Colorado high court judicial directive took effect this month, forcing court administrators to redact sensitive information from public records instead of altogether sealing the files despite claims of limited resources.

Besides directing court administrators to redact sensitive information, all court files are now presumed open to the public except for certain categories of records, said Steven Zansberg, a Denver media attorney.

“This isn’t a resounding win; it still allows for a laundry list of things that have been placed off-limits,” Zansberg said. “It’s certainly an improvement, but the policy does not go as far as we’d like to see it go.”

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Alex Martinez was in charge of the Public Access Committee that issued the original public access policy later adopted as a directive from the Supreme Court’s chief justice in April 2005.

The directive ordered court administrators to seal information in court records required to be withheld under federal or state law. State lawmakers and the State Court Administrator’s Office argued that sealing sensitive information such as Social Security numbers would prevent identity theft and limit companies requesting court records for customers.

Half of the state’s 22 judicial districts responded to the 2005 directive by closing public access to domestic relations and probate files instead of redacting sensitive information and making the records available for public inspection, Zansberg said.

The administrators relied on a “resource limitations” exception in the directive to limit access to the files. They argued they did not have the financial and personnel resources to redact the sensitive information, Zansberg said.

Though many court records are now presumptively open, Zansberg said there is still a “whole laundry list” of records from cases — including mental health, adoption and paternity cases — that are not accessible to the public unless a court rules otherwise. Court records from expunged or sealed cases are also not available unless the court orders otherwise.

In addition, a host of court records that investigative reporters use for background in stories are still not accessible, including driver history reports, sworn financial statements and financial affidavits, and separation agreements. Other commonly filed records that are off-limits include jury questionnaires, credit reports, medical and mental health information, and psychological and intelligence test information.

Other records do not require a court order for public access — that is, they are now presumptively open. The records must be made available by court administrators, who are also required to redact sensitive information.

Those records include documents that contain victim identifying information in sexual assault cases, and Social Security numbers, driver license numbers, personal identification numbers (on passports, student IDs and state IDs) and financial account numbers unless only the last few numbers are revealed.

NC


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