The state court system has taken steps to ensure that nearly all information in district court records is available to the public, following up on complaints that some district judges have gone too far in restricting access to their files.
The court system issued a reminder to Pennsylvania’s 555 district judges that, in general, the only portions of their records they may black out or withhold are the names of juvenile victims of physical or sexual abuse.
Pennsylvania Court Administrator Zygmont A. Pines wrote in a June 26 letter to the judges that he has received reports of judges redacting addresses and other information about victims and witnesses, without a higher-court order or specific statutory authority.
“As a general premise, redacting information prior to permitting inspection and copying is inconsistent with the (state court system’s) policy and controlling legal authority,” he said.
Pines cited a February 2005 survey coordinated by The Associated Press in which news organizations tested access to public court records. It found inconsistent practices among judges, with some district courts refusing access or redacting portions of documents, although the great majority of courts provided the records as required.
Pines’ letter said a section of the court system’s open-records policy that allows certain information to be withheld does not apply to district judges’ paper records.
Information under that section includes addresses; Social Security and driver’s license numbers; phone and fax numbers; the names of those for whom disclosure will impair their safety or privacy; and information likely to impair public safety. The section applies only to records requests made to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, including for statistical, docket or case-index information.
He also said that a proposed policy regarding electronic court records that the state Supreme Court is considering is not a basis for district judges to redact or deny access to the paper records in their files.
District judges should review the state’s records policy with employees who field public-access requests, Pines also said. The AP survey found some court personnel unfamiliar with the law, hampering access.
Pennsylvania Newspaper Association general counsel Teri Henning said her organization sought the court system’s intervention this spring after its members reported that they were encountering access problems.
“We’re very happy with their prompt response,” Henning said. “I think it reaffirms the principle that court records are open and that there’s a strong presumption of access to court records and proceedings, and district judges must provide access to their case files, except in very limited circumstances.”
The AP survey, which measured access to public records and information at nearly 700 government, court and school offices, included visits to 155 district courts.
The surveyors sought to review an entire criminal case file and a photocopy of the first page of charging documents. Ninety percent of requests for the case file were granted, but some redactions were made and copies were not always provided.
The courts’ access policy states case-file photocopies must be provided, at a cost of no more than 50 cents per page.
District court employees asked surveyors how the information would be used, where the requester worked and whether they had any involvement in the crime. In some cases, access was contingent on providing a sufficient answer.
Pennsylvania’s elected district judges conduct hearings for traffic offenses and minor crimes, issue warrants, set bail and perform preliminary hearings for felonies. Many are former police officers.