County clerk’s office in Pennsylvania agrees to improve access to criminal court records
Members of the press and public will soon have improved access to criminal court records in York County, Pennsylvania, thanks to a settlement agreement attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press helped five local news organizations reach this week with the county’s Clerk of Courts.
The agreement ensures that journalists and others who request access to judicial records subject to public disclosure under the law will receive more complete documents at a reasonable cost and in a timely manner.
The York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group and WITF reached a settlement with York County Clerk of Courts Daniel Byrnes eight months after the newsrooms filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing Byrnes and his staff of repeatedly delaying and denying access to court records in violation of the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania Constitution. In their complaint, the local news outlets described how the clerk’s office often overcharged for documents and redacted records, even though it didn’t have the authority to do so.
According to the nine-page settlement, the parties have agreed to the following terms:
- The clerk’s office must publicly post a written policy detailing the policies and procedures for requesting judicial records in person and via email. The policy should state that the cost of records will not exceed $0.25 per page for printed documents, according to a statewide policy.
- The clerk’s office must create an internal policy outlining how employees should respond to requests for court records. The policy should include details on which categories of information are public, as well as those that are protected from disclosure by state and federal laws and policies.
- Employees of the clerk’s office “shall respond to requests for public access to judicial records as promptly as possible under the circumstances,” the settlement agreement states, noting that the clerk’s office “will make all reasonable attempts to respond to requests on the same business day on which the request is made.”
- The clerk’s office is prohibited from the wholesale sealing of court records concerning minors who are victims of sexual or physical abuse, as well as human-trafficking victims. Instead, staff are required to produce the requested records, subject to any necessary redactions to protect the victims’s names.
- Employees of the clerk’s office must receive training that covers how members of the public can request records and how staff are required to respond to them.
- Journalists for the news outlets that brought the lawsuit will also receive training that addresses state laws and policies governing access to judicial records, including which kinds of court records are accessible and which are protected from public disclosure. (Byrnes is required to attend the training.)
“While it’s unfortunate that we had to take legal action here, I’m pleased that we were able to resolve this issue in a way that will assure easier public access to criminal court records without undue redactions by the Clerk of Courts Office,” Scott Fisher, Central Pennsylvania news director for the USA Today Network, told the York Daily Record. “I’m grateful to the media partners that joined us in this case — and to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for their diligent work.”
Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, and RCFP Legal Fellow Sasha Dudding represented the news outlets in the lawsuit. As part of the agreement, the clerk’s office is required to pay the Reporters Committee nearly $7,000 to cover costs incurred in the litigation.
“This settlement will bring York County in line with the levels of access that are required under the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions and laws,” Dudding said, adding that she hopes the policies created through the settlement agreement will lead to improvements in court access in other Pennsylvania counties. “People will now be able to get faster and more complete access to records about criminal cases happening in their community.”
Dudding said the public education component of the settlement agreement is especially noteworthy. An exhibit to the settlement, which is required to be posted in the clerk’s office and on its website, breaks down which records are subject to public disclosure and which records are protected under state and federal laws.
“Now everybody will be on the same page about when they’re able to get information, what information they’re able to get and to flag any issues that may persist,” Dudding said.
To read more about this settlement agreement, check out the stories published by the York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, Spotlight PA, and WITF. You can also read court filings in this case on our litigation page.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.