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State Supreme Court limits public access to court records

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MINNESOTA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   June 20, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MINNESOTA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   June 20, 2005

State Supreme Court limits public access to court records

  • Only court-generated documents will be automatically available to Internet users under new rules effective July 1.

June 20, 2005  ·   The Minnesota Supreme Court has approved new rules that will restrict the public’s ability to access court records online, and reduce the information now available in paper records.

Actions, case calendars, indexes, judgment dockets, judgments, orders, notices, and appellate court opinions will be available on the Internet beginning July 1 under the amended Rule 8 of the Rules of Public Access to Records of the Judicial Branch. All other electronic case records currently accessible to the public will only be searchable, in electronic or paper form, at the courthouse.

The amendments to the rules also aim to reduce the risk of identity theft by eliminating from both electronic and paper records personal identifiers, such as Social Security and financial account numbers, as well as documents such as tax returns and pay stubs.

Mark Anfinson, a lawyer for the Minnesota Newspaper Association who served on a 20-member Supreme Court advisory committee, said he was satisfied with the rule changes, although the court “didn’t authorize as much public access as I had advocated.” He remained optimistic that electronic access in Minnesota will increase eventually.

“I think as time goes by, the amount of data available from court records on the Web will do nothing but expand,” he said. “We need to be a little bit patient.”

Anfinson expressed some frustration with the court’s decision to inhibit access to pre-conviction criminal records, which are currently available online. In an effort to discourage computerized data harvesting, courts will not publish on the Internet records such as motions, orders and other documents in a pending criminal case, unless court personnel make “reasonable efforts” to prevent the records from being searchable by the defendant’s name. Such records, which are publicly available at the courthouse, may be released in bulk as long as the requester agrees not to disclose the information in a way that identifies defendants by name. The court may charge a fee to copy the records.

Anfinson said criminal defense lawyers pushed for the restriction on access to criminal records.

“There is a difference between public and super-public,” public defender Robert Sykora, another committee member, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Internet access to pleadings will be permitted on a case-by-case basis, and then only if authorized by a court order, while appellate briefs will be available online if the appendices are redacted.

The high court amended the rules after receiving final recommendations from an advisory committee in June 2004 and holding a hearing on the committee’s recommendations in September. The committee will continue studying public access to court records and report back to the court by May 2006.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, joined by four other media organizations, submitted comments last year urging the Supreme Court to allow electronic access to be as extensive as access to paper records.


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