New Mass. E-Filing, Online Court Record Policies Require Public Oversight and Improved Press Access

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT Justin Silverman | justin@nefirstamendment.org | 774.244.2365

The New England First Amendment Coalition recently called for more public participation in discussions about how to access Massachusetts court documents using new technology.

In letters written on behalf of the coalition, NEFAC requested, among other things, more oversight of the electronic filing rule-making process, and increased access to masscourts.org, an online repository of court records.

“These records are essential to the public’s understanding of the judicial system,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “While changes in technology can make it easier for citizens to access public records, innovation may also unintentionally inhibit that access. We want to make sure the long-standing tradition of public access to court records is maintained.”

Attorneys at Prince Lobel Tye LLP — including Robert Bertsche, a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors — addressed these issues on behalf of NEFAC, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, Courthouse News Service and The Boston Globe.

In a May 1 letter to Superior Court Justice Peter Lauriat, chairman of the Public Access to Court Records Committee, NEFAC cited a lack of public access to masscourts.org, a state-run website that intends to link courthouses across the Commonwealth. Unlike its predecessor, ma-trialcourts.org, this site provides docket information only to those with a Board of Bar Overseers number, effectively limiting the court records to attorneys.

“Historically, public access to court records has not been restricted to any particular class of persons,” the letter stated. The “presumptive right of public access extends to all members of the public, and cannot be restricted only to certain groups such as attorneys.”

In addition to requesting press access to docket information, NEFAC asked the committee to publicly provide copies of its agendas and minutes, as well as access to committee meetings.

In a March 31 letter to Thomas Ambrosino, executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court Administrative Office, NEFAC discussed the potential limitations of proposed electronic filing rules and asked for a member of the media to be appointed to the committee responsible for drafting those rules.

Under one potential rule, for example, documents filed electronically would not be available to the public until “reviewed” and “accepted” by the court clerk. Currently, court filings are made public once they are filed and with little or no review involved. As explained in the letter, this potential “policy would be contrary to the presumptive right of access to court records.”

“While these draft rules may have been intended to require only such ‘review’ as is currently performed, we are concerned that as written, they could add significant delays in access to e-filed documents while at the same time tying the court’s hands to deal with those delays,” the letter stated. “Logically, advances in information technology should enhance the public’s ability to access court documents, not restrict it, but that’s not always the case.”

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NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, and Boston University.