PORTLAND, Maine — The judicial committee figuring out how to finally digitize Maine court records has recommended spending up to $15 million on a system that would block the public from accessing most court documents online, even though they are public and available at courthouses.
Lawyers and people with cases before the courts would be able to look at their own case files over the internet but the general public would still have to walk into a courthouse to see these public documents, under the plan released Tuesday by the Transparency and Privacy Task Force.
The committee was convened after Maine’s top judge lobbied lawmakers for millions of dollars to bring the courts into the digital age, telling the Legislature last winter that “the public deserves electronic access to its government.”
But its recommendations have attracted criticism from open government advocates, who say that for most Mainers the plan would make court files no more accessible than they were in the 19th century.
This “proposal would require the public to travel to a courthouse to obtain any of the substantive documents in a case, just the same as if it were 1820,” Mal Leary, a task force member, Maine Public reporter and president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, wrote in dissent accompanying the final report. The Bangor Daily News shares content with Maine Public.
The federal courts, those in some other states and Maine’s own probate courts, make case files available online. But the rest of the task force, which is mostly made up of lawyers and judges, said opening these public records up to the public online would imperil people’s privacy.
Rather, by limiting online access, the proposal balances the demands of transparency and privacy and maintains the “practical obscurity” provided by Maine courts’ antiquated paper record system, the report states.
“This approach recognizes that personal, private information, once distributed on the Internet, will never again be private,” said courts spokeswoman Mary Ann Lynch.
The 21-member task force did recommend making some documents other than case files — such as docket sheets and hearing notices — generally accessible online. And it states that public case files should still be available to the public at a courthouse where they can be subject to copying fees.
“Justice partners” and state agencies should have online access to specific case information at the courts’ discretion, the report states.
In September, after the BDN first reported that the committee was considering limiting public access online, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition urged the courts to make public case files publicly available online.
“This is the premise under which the Legislature funded the electronic filing of court records project,” said coalition President Jim Campbell.
The most recent state budget authorized the judicial branch to issue bonds for up to $15 million to digitize court records.
There will be a public comment period before the courts decide how to proceed with moving their records online. But so far, lawmakers don’t have much to say about the matter.
Statehouse leaders from both parties did not respond to questions about the proposal.