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RCFP, PNA letter to Pennsylvania Supreme Court highlights barriers to accessing court records

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  1. Court Access
A coalition led by RCFP, PNA raises concerns about restrictions on public access to criminal court records in several counties.
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A coalition of organizations led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association is urging the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to ensure consistent and meaningful public access to judicial records throughout the Commonwealth.

In a letter delivered to Chief Justice Max Baer on May 24, 2022, the coalition expressed concerns about ongoing and systemic barriers to public access to criminal court records. The letter highlights access issues in several counties across the Commonwealth, including York, where Reporters Committee attorneys are currently litigating a First Amendment public access case against the county clerk of courts.

“This isn’t just a media issue,” Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, told The Patriot-News. “Fundamentally, it’s a democracy issue for all of us to ensure that the government in the judicial branch is working well and working to provide equal justice under the law.”

The coalition states in the letter that, in most instances reported to RCFP and PNA, court staff have said their decision to restrict access to records is based, in part, on the advice of staff of Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, an office supervised by the Supreme Court.

“[W]e respectfully urge this Court to exercise its constitutional authority to evaluate the issue and take steps to ensure the Unified Judicial System’s role in supervising judicial records is compliant with constitutional and common law requirements for open courts,” the letter states.