Courts tighten access to records
August 27, 2007
ASPEN ” People wanting immediate access to court documents now have to wait up to three days.
The Colorado Supreme Court recently changed regulations, slowing public access to court documents. In Pitkin County District Court in Aspen, records are taking one to three days to be released when they used to be open to same-day public inspection.
“It’s frustrating on my part to not be able to give you stuff as quickly as we could before,” said Carolyn Jemison, the court clerk for Pitkin County. “I know it’s a priority, but it’s another priority.”
The change comes as part of a Supreme Court directive that amended the Colorado Judicial Department’s rules for public access. Now, court documents can only be released after Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, financial-account numbers and other personal-identification numbers, such as those on passports or student IDs, have been redacted.
Open-records proponents say the new rule is just one of many recent changes in access law that has unjustifiably closed public access by a governmental body.
The judicial branch defended the directive, saying it has made more records open to the public. For example, public records of divorce cases used to be automatically sealed. Now the public can request divorce cases, though many are heavily censored.
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Carol Haller, counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department, agreed that the directive will likely slow down public access. However, she couldn’t cite a single example of identity theft coming from court records.
Ed Otte, executive director of the Colorado Press Association, said the new rules are part of a growing trend that is making it tougher to access public records.
“Privacy issues are the boogie men we’re dealing with now at the Legislature,” said Otte. “On this particular issue, it’s a narrow focus of court records. Overall, we’re seeing it with all government records. Quite often the [privacy] argument is at odds with the public right and need to know.”
A recent example of privacy issues affecting public access was a law requiring counties to delete names from financial legal notices that run in newspapers. Before that change, counties were required to report the names of individuals and their salaries. Now names cannot be included, and only the salary and the job title can be identified.
Otte said that hampers the public’s ability to gain information.
“Now you don’t know if there is a disparity of gender or seniority. You don’t know because there aren’t any names attached,” Otte said.
The Supreme Court directive, meanwhile, went into effect July 1, but it was not linked to any new funding or increased staffing. Haller said it is not possible for court directives to be funded, meaning courts like Pitkin County are left to add one more duty to the list.
In Mesa County, the district recently added a new judge and a new clerk. Since Clerk of Court Sandra Casselberry knew the directive would add duties, she gave those tasks to the new clerk. Not all courts have been as lucky.
However, Haller did say the judicial branch would ask for increased staffing come next year’s legislative session.
“It is a tough balancing act,” she said. “Change is hard for every court, it’s one more thing on top of the stack.”
Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org