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Appeals court changes inadvertent rule denying access

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MARYLAND   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 13, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MARYLAND   ·   Secret Courts   ·   Jan. 13, 2006

Appeals court changes inadvertent rule denying access

  • A court rule that unintentionally denied public access to possibly thousands of criminal cases, including murders, was scrapped after a television station challenged it.

Jan. 13, 2006  ·   Public access to possibly thousands of criminal cases in Maryland was restored Tuesday when the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, rewrote a rule that unintentionally sealed cases involving child abuse or neglect.

The rule, passed in October 2004 and implemented last year, required custodians of records to “deny inspection of” any “case record concerning child abuse or neglect.”

Some court clerks interpreted the rule to require automatic sealing of any civil or criminal case that included an allegation of child abuse, regardless of the other charges. Members of the public not only couldn’t see such files, they couldn’t even be told what the charges were or that the case existed, The (Annapolis) Capital reported.

Attorney Nathan Siegel, who argued in favor of narrowing the rule during a court hearing Tuesday, said though the prohibition was “clearly unintentional,” the rule was extremely broad.

“You had all cases that had any relationship to child abuse or child sexual abuse being closed in their entirety,” Siegel said in an interview. His client, WBAL-TV in Baltimore, challenged the closure of two cases under the rule, including a high-profile murder case in Baltimore County in which a mother is charged with killing her 3-year-old son. The other case involves a sex offender.

The Capital reported that hours before the Court of Appeals changed the rule Tuesday, a district court clerk in Annapolis denied a Capital reporter access to documents in a murder case involving a child. In that case, a 25-year-old man is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend’s 18-month-old daughter.

Because he was charged with child abuse, the defendant’s charges did not show up in a search on a public terminal, and a reporter was told “the case is not subject to inspection,” The Capital reported.

Although some clerks denied access under the rule, it was not applied uniformly. “Different interpretations of the rule are being implemented throughout the State, and the proposed amendment would provide for greater uniformity,” the state’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure told the court in writing. The committee recommended rewriting the rule to allow access.

Siegel said the rule was interpreted to prohibit access in various counties, including Baltimore, Montgomery and Frederick, among others.

“In some of the state’s major jurisdictions, they were interpreting it quite strictly,” he said.

Following the rules committee’s recommendation, the court unanimously agreed to change the wording of the rule so it applies only to agency records specifically protected under the law. The rule now denies access to any record “created or maintained by an agency concerning child abuse or neglect that is required by statute to be kept confidential.”

Siegel said he is pleased to see the matter resolved.

“There were a lot of people in the state media that were interested in this,” he said. “If the court hadn’t acted the way it did, it would have unquestionably resulted in some sort of litigation.”

(Media counsel: Nathan Siegel, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Washington, D.C.)AB

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