From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.
Excerpts from comments filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association:
Electronic access to court records will enable the public to keep track of matters of public concern. For example, the public has a strong interest in knowing that laws are effectively enforced. The Washington Post recently published a series of articles concerning the ineffectiveness of drunken driving laws in Montgomery County, Md. The newspaper chronicled several persistent drunk drivers who would receive a mere slap on the wrist from county judges and be let loose on the roads. The public has an interest both in knowing who drives drunk (to avoid them or stop them) and how the judges treat drunk drivers (to determine whether they wish to take action for stronger DWI laws or new judges). Such a story is obviously faster and easier to compile with electronic access to records. Although the drunk drivers might claim that they have a privacy interest in keeping their drunk driving history a secret, there is clearly a much stronger public interest in knowing how chronic drunk drivers are treated by the courts.
. . .
Any judicial policy should begin with the assumption that there is a right of access. In a particular case where a litigant contests the availability of information, the court may evaluate whether his privacy interests outweigh the right of access in that particular case. The procedure for doing so is already in existence via sealing orders or protective orders. However, a sweeping policy that attempts to preemptively determine which materials should be public and which should not would inevitably be broadly drawn and would limit access to information that would otherwise be available to the public.
. . .
The public has an interest — a strong interest — in ensuring that those who commit crimes are properly convicted and also in ensuring that those who are innocent are released. Openness ensures that prosecutors do not abuse their power and generally allows the public to see whether the government employees properly and efficiently serve the public interest. Further, once a criminal is convicted, the public has an interest in following that person’s behavior for its own safety and protection.