Maine’s highest court rules in favor of public access to state’s online court records
Maine’s new electronic court filing system will be available to the public for a fee, the state’s top judge said.
The Supreme Judicial Court was about to hold a public hearing Thursday morning on the $15 million system when Chief Justice Leigh Saufley said the court had already decided the matter. The system will allow prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges to file documents online and the public will have access via the internet. Details, including fees for accessing documents, are still to be determined.
Saufley said some documents that are currently off-limits to the public, such as divorces involving children and many juvenile matters, will remain off-limits. Saufley said the new system will allow remote access to court documents, such as schedules, motions and decisions.
“This is good news for transparency in our court system and a better-informed public,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald.
Schechtman, other media representatives and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition were in Augusta to testify before the high court to urge that the new system be accessible to the public. Many were surprised that Saufley opened the meeting by announcing that the system would be “internet-based” and largely open to the public.
The decision “is great news and a good thing for the public and everyone who is concerned with an open, transparent and accountable court system,” said Sigmund D. Schutz, an attorney and board member of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.
He said his organization and others will now focus on details of the plan for the new filing system. Saufley indicated that rules will be proposed by fall and the public will be given an opportunity to comment. She also suggested that the court might make some recommendations to the Legislature about whether to expand the categories of documents that are confidential in court files.
“We need to make sure that line is drawn in the right place,” Schutz said.
Ilse Teeters-Trumpy, a family law lawyer who was a member of the advisory task force, said there was great concern about privacy by the members of the group.
Teeters-Trumpy said she hadn’t seen Saufley’s comments and declined to comment on her decision. But she explained the task force’s recommendation, noting the difference between accessing court documents online from a home or office, and going to a courthouse to review them.
“We felt the potential for abuse was greater (with online access) than if someone were forced to go out in public to the courthouse,” she said. Although many family law matters are confidential, she said, issues like financial and health matters are sometimes referred to in public filings and the task force wanted to make sure they were shielded.
Teeters-Trumpy said lawyers might ask judges to seal more documents to preserve privacy if the public is allowed internet access to court filings.
The state signed a contract to install a new electronic system with Tyler Technologies in 2016 and it is expected to take years to fully roll out. A task force formed to study access to the system recommended last year that remote public access should be limited to dockets – the lists of cases that are ongoing in the courts. The task force recommended forcing the public to travel to a courthouse to see documents associated with cases, a decision overruled by the court, according to Saufley’s announcement Thursday.
The public can access most documents filed in federal courts via PACER, an internet-based system that tracks cases in all federal courts. Users generally have to set up an account. Fees charged to access documents are typically 10 cents a page, but that fee is usually capped at $3 for documents that contain more than 30 pages.
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