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In Pennsylvania, local news outlets fight practices they argue stifle judicial transparency

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  1. Court Access
RCFP attorneys are representing five news organizations in their federal civil rights lawsuit against the York County Clerk of Courts.
Photo of the York County Judicial Center
York County Judicial Center (Photo by Paul Kuehnel of the York Daily Record)

Update: On Oct. 10, 2022, the news organizations reached a settlement agreement with the York County Clerk of Courts to improve public access to judicial records.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of five local news organizations, attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argue that the practices and policies of the York County Clerk of Courts office in Pennsylvania are routinely and unconstitutionally stifling transparency in the county’s criminal court system.

The lawsuit, brought by the York Daily Record, The York Dispatch, Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group and WITF, describes a pattern in the Clerk of Courts office of preventing journalists from obtaining timely and comprehensive access to court records filed in criminal cases — a right guaranteed to the press and public under both the First Amendment and the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in the state, is representing the news organizations in the case. The complaint, filed on March 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, lays out numerous instances in which the news organizations allege Clerk of Courts Daniel Byrnes and his staff have delayed, improperly restricted and overcharged for access to judicial records. The Clerk of Courts is an elected position in the county, and its office, according to its website, is responsible for maintaining a record of the docketing and events associated with approximately 8,000 to 9,000 criminal cases per year for the York County Court of Common Pleas.

“Journalists from news organizations across the state regularly rely on court records to produce timely and comprehensive reporting about what’s happening in the judicial system,” said Burke. “When that access is improperly delayed, limited or denied, it’s not only unconstitutional, but it also makes it more difficult or even impossible to provide the reporting that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians depend on to better understand public safety and how their local courts are operating.”

In court filings, Burke and Reporters Committee Legal Fellow Sasha Dudding describe how, during a three-week period last September, journalists for the news organizations requested access to 42 criminal case records — yet they received only one record on the same day it was requested and without any redactions. For the remaining 41 records, most of them were redacted and provided only after a delay.

In Pennsylvania, only the parties and attorneys in a case or the court have the authority to redact confidential information within court records, and only the court may seal records entirely. If a judge does seal records, it must be done in a narrowly tailored way that serves a compelling government interest. Instead, in response to some journalists’ requests for records, staff in the Clerk of Courts office — not judges — reviewed the records and redacted non-confidential information that in some cases was already publicly available, even though they have no legal authority to do so. This review and redaction process not only resulted in information that should be public remaining hidden, the lawsuit argues, but also the delayed release of records to requestors.

Journalists also found that the Clerk of Courts office marked some cases as “impounded” and denied all requests for access to any records associated with those cases, despite the fact that only judges — not an administrative office — are authorized to issue sealing orders.

The lawsuit also questions the Clerk of Courts’ practice of overcharging for and limiting access to court records. Last March, the office’s published fee schedule noted that members of the public would be charged $0.65 per page for paper copies of court records despite a statewide policy setting a $0.25 per-page limit, though Byrnes later reduced the fees after pushback from the Reporters Committee and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

The next month, the Clerk of Courts office disabled software installed on computers located inside the courthouse that, since 2006, had provided the public with instant, free access to electronic court records. The change meant journalists had to either request to review original court records at the front counter in the Clerk of Courts office or email requests for electronic court records to the office.

The news organizations are asking the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania to order the York County Clerk of Courts to discontinue its unlawful policies and practices and to issue a judgment declaring them unconstitutional.

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.

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