Testimony to the Maryland Ad Hoc Committee on Court Reconds
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt (Ret) – December 2000
Good Evening. Thank you very much for allowing me this opportunity to provide you information concerning the important topic of public access to court information. I appear before you tonight wearing several hats. First, I am a life long resident of the State of Maryland. I have been a member of the bar for 33 years. Last year I retired as a Judge of the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County after serving for over 17 years. During my term as a Judge I served as Chair of the Courts Technology Committee and was instrumental in the establishment of the open records policy of that court. In addition I assisted in the planning and implementation of the State’s first on line electronic public access service to the citizens. That service P.G. Online was a public private partnership with the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, The Prince George’s County Government and Intelligate, a subsidiary of Bell Atlantic.
Since retirement from the bench I have entered the private sector as an arbitrator, consultant, and a member of the Board of Directors of CourtLink appointed their Chief Industry Advisor. In addition, I also author a monthly technology column -VirtualCourthouse.com – delivered via the Web, which I began doing 4 years, ago www.mdlaw.net/ahalt and www.pro2net.com . Lastly, I have served as a member of the faculty of the Institute for Court Management of the National Center for State Courts teaching courses to judges and court managers on Public Access Issues and Technologies.
As courts and legal professionals grapple with the causes of the public’s decreasing public trust and confidence, it is somewhat ironic that we are discussing a policy which would lessen the public’s access to courts rather than increase access.
As you commence your deliberations I believe that it is important for you to focus on what information is electronically available today as opposed to what might be available in future years. A court file contains various levels of information. First the file contains a docket of information. This docket is basically an index of the file, which identifies the parties, type of case and a summary statement of each document. The docket is commonly referred to as the court “record”. Within each file there are also pleadings, which are documents, required to be filed by rule of court delineating a party’s written case. Within a pleading there are exhibits, which support a party’s case or sometimes provide information to the court from third parties. Currently, the only information kept by the court electronically are, court “records”. Pleadings and exhibits do not exist in electronic format and are therefore unavailable to the public electronically.
It is also important to consider the experience with the current electronic public access programs in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County and the Judicial Information System. The experience of the Federal Courts in the Baltimore-Washington region is also significant. With relatively few exceptions these programs have provided thousands of members of the community with electronic access to criminal and civil court records in an effective, inexpensive and efficient fashion. In addition, the public has been saved thousands of dollars as the necessary travel to a courthouse has been eliminated.
Last week I attended the Electronic Filing- Privacy & Public Access Conference 2000 conducted by the National Center for State Courts in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over 300 judges and court managers were in attendance. Materials from the conference are available on the Internet http://ctl.ncsc.dni.us/PublicAccess/E-FilingConf.htm . The National Center also maintains a Public Access to Court Records Web Site at http://ctl.ncsc.dni.us/PublicAccess/ . I would commend your study of this comprehensive compilation of materials by the leading experts in the nation. From these materials you will find that the National Center for State Courts recommends, that “all records and court data should be open for public review and access” absent a “clear showing of countervailing public policy or public individual harm.” Of particular help will be Vermont’s recently concluded study of public access to court documents and adopted rules for public access to court records.
Justice John A. Dooley of the Vermont Supreme Court addressed the conference to provide an account of the benefit of Vermont state court’s recent experience. His advice was that policy decisions concerning access to court records should be an inclusive process. For instance, the Vermont study committee had more non-lawyers and judges, including representatives from the media (print, radio, television), business and the other branches of government, than legal professionals.
Justice Dooley made the following points:
Electronic access is a trap – the issue is public access
Things that are wrong on the Internet have been wrong in the paper world
Technology is more of a solution, than a problem
The job is never done. There needs to be a continual assessment of evolving technology
The clear evolving national consensus is that Internet technology is providing the public with greater access to courts inexpensively and with minimal harm. Thus,
More Access is better than restricted access
The public has legitimate need for access to court records
Technology can provide the pubic with court records more efficiently and at a lower cost
Restricting public access to court information is not necessary to protect the public from misuse, as other effective alternative methods exist.
In summary, I urge the committee to recommend the formation of a broad based inclusive committee to study the experiences of other state and federal courts. In the meantime, the committee should recommend a continuation of the status quo by allowing a continuation and even expansion of current programs, as there has been no current demonstration of public harm while there is substantial evidence of public good. In the vernacular of the basketball court “no harm; no foul”.
Thank you very much.
Arthur M. Monty Ahalt
2603 Enterprise Rd
Mitchellville, Md. 20721