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Judicial case-tracking records do not have to be released

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CONNECTICUT   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   April 28, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CONNECTICUT   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   April 28, 2006

Judicial case-tracking records do not have to be released

  • Logs of court cases kept by the state’s Judicial Branch are not public records, a sharply divided state high court ruled.

April 28, 2006  ·   Records that track court cases are not related to the courts’ administrative functions and therefore do not have to be released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 April 21.

The records in question are a written log of pending cases, known as a pending book, and a daybook, a computer printout containing similar information. The documents contain defendants’ names, addresses, birth dates, court dates and other information.

“It is essential for the independence of the judicial branch that the courts have control over court records and that the other branches of government not interfere with that control,” Chief Justice William J. Sullivan wrote for the majority. “We conclude that, for the purposes of the [Freedom of Information Act], the judicial branch’s administrative functions consist of activities relating to its budget, personnel, facilities and physical operations and that records unrelated to those activities are exempt. The computer records at issue in the present case do not relate to any of these activities.”

Attorney Russell Collins requested the records in 2002. The Judicial Branch denied the request, saying that the records did not involve an administrative function of the branch and were not subject to the open records law. Collins then requested daybooks for another period of time, including “any nonexempt information maintained within any computer storage system” including defendants’ names, addresses and charges, and whether they are represented by counsel.

When the Judicial Branch denied the second request, Collins filed a complaint with Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, which ruled that although some information in the daybook and pending book was exempt and redaction would be time-consuming, the computer system records were related to administrative functions and therefore should be disclosed.

The Connecticut Appellate Court reversed the commission, saying the records do not have to be released, and the Supreme Court agreed.

In the dissent, Justice Flemming Norcott Jr. wrote that “the computer system information in the present case pertains merely to the ‘internal institutional machinery’ by which the Judicial Branch schedules and tracks pending criminal cases, and is not information affecting the decisional process in those cases, which is exempt from the act.”

Norcott, whose opinion was joined by two other justices, also wrote that the majority applies an “improperly restrictive definition” of the Judicial Branch’s administrative function, and this definition “is the product of its miscomprehension of our case law, misplaced reliance on New York law, and failure to credit properly the legislative history of the act.”

The majority’s decision relied in part on New York trial court decisions discussing the difference between administrative and adjudicative.

A panel of five judges first heard the case in early 2005 and ruled 3-2 for releasing the records, but the decision was not released because either the chief justice or the panel itself decided to reconsider the case with the entire court, said Victor Perpetua, attorney for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

Perpetua will ask the commission on May 10 for authority to seek a rehearing. “We were not permitted to argue to the extended panel,” Perpetua said, adding that the transcript from the argument before five judges was read but the court injected case law from other jurisdictions which the commission was not able to argue.

The case has also drawn attention for political reasons. Justice David Borden notified the Connecticut General Assembly’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Monday that retiring Chief Justice Sullivan had blocked the release of the court’s decision, and the committee is investigating.

(Clerk of the Superior Court v. Freedom of Information Commission)KV

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