The Oklahoma Supreme Court earlier this week nixed a proposed rule that would have severely limited personal information contained in court records in favor of one that allows, but does not require, the omission of basic identifying data.
Under the new Rule 31 created by a Supreme Court order released Monday, parties to certain actions may include individuals’ social security, taxpayer identification, financial account and driver’s license numbers in documents filed with the Oklahoma courts. Only inclusion of the last four digits of these numbers would have been permitted under the former, rejected proposal. It also would have limited birth dates to just the year, and home addresses to just the city and state.
Members of the local news media, including the Oklahoma chapter of Society of Professional Journalists and The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman, were among the roughly 50 organizations and individuals who filed letters in opposition to the original proposal, said Mark Thomas, who wrote a letter on behalf of the Oklahoma Press Association. Many of these news entities argued that adoption of the proposed rule would make reporters' jobs more difficult by, for example, frustrating their ability to include accurate information in reports about a suspect’s criminal past, said Thomas, the association's executive vice president, in an interview.
But to him, the proposed rule implicated significant public issues beyond this mere "convenience" to journalists.
"What's at stake is our faith and trust in the judicial system," Thomas said. "Under the [original proposal], there would have been two sets of books: one they could see and one the public could see. Why do you need two sets of books to administer justice? That would have been a gateway to eventual distrust and favoritism and possibly fraud and corruption."
Thomas commended the court's action, noting the adopted rule struck an appropriate balance between the public's right to access its courts and individuals' privacy rights.
The rule provides parties with no discretion to redact personal identifying information in felony and misdemeanor criminal cases, as well as those involving traffic tickets. Individuals filing documents in other causes of action, including civil and divorce cases, “may” limit the personal identifying numbers to their last four digits.
“This rule affirms the doctrine that (other than those sealed or closed by long-established law) every document filed with the Court Clerk is a public record. And this rule does not prohibit the inclusion of any information in any filed document. Information included in a document will be determined by the filer,” Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven W. Taylor wrote in a brief opinion concurring with the order creating the new rule.
Pursuant to state law, juvenile court records will remain confidential, the order states.
In addition to members of the news media, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, businesses and other organizations and individuals publicly protested the original rule, namely its proposed redaction of important information from criminal records.
Business owners complained they would have a difficult time properly screening job applicants for criminal backgrounds without the individuals’ complete birth dates and home addresses. Law enforcement representatives argued that access to this full information ensures officers are locating, arresting and detaining the correct people. Prosecutors claimed redaction of personal information from court records would make it difficult or impossible for them to prove a particular defendant’s prior convictions.
Moreover, one response to the court’s request for public input noted that identity theft arising from the inclusion of personal information in court records — one of the main rationales underlying the Supreme Court’s original proposal — has not proven to be a significant problem.