Public records lose their transparency with ruling
August 28, 2007
Identity theft is a matter of legitimate public concern, but the state is solving a nonexistent problem by clamping down on public access to court documents.Until recently the public and the press were allowed to view lawsuits, for example, on the day they were filed. Now, after an administrative decision by the Colorado Supreme Court, courts may release documents only after a court staffer has deleted personal information such as Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and other identifying information. This is taking the Pitkin County court up to three days to accomplish.This is a move borne of good intentions, but it won’t solve any identity-theft problems. Crooks engaged in stealing people’s personal information don’t pore over court cases to find Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and other ill-gotten treasures. In fact, the counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department admitted to The Aspen Times that she couldn’t cite a single case of identity theft through court records in the state.No such restrictions apply to federal court cases, so we’re unsure why Colorado is going out on this judicial limb.This decision is part of a larger movement in government to control information for the sake of privacy. This does not befit an open society, especially at a time when the federal government is tapping phones and eroding civil liberties in its search for suspected terrorists.A recent law the Colorado General Assembly passed just made it more difficult to know exactly how Colorado counties are paying their employees. Counties were once required to publish legal notices in newspapers that listed employees and their salaries by name, but now the names are to be omitted with only the salary and job title remaining. This might not seem like a big deal, but how is the public to know, for example, whether there is a disparity in the way men and women are paid?Understandably, public employees cringe at the idea of having their names and salaries published in the newspaper, but it’s one of the prices of living in an open society. And we all benefit from this transparency, directly or indirectly, by having government agencies that are accountable to the taxpayers.A government by and for the people should be an open government. And a public document – a court record, the minutes from a city council meeting or anything else – loses integrity when a clerk has edited and redacted details.