PORTLAND, Maine — The general public could soon be blocked from accessing nearly all state court files online.
The change is part of a proposal by the group charged with figuring out how to digitize those public records, which are now available only in hard copy at courthouses.
The proposal has not yet been accepted by the judicial task force. But government transparency advocates are worried the plan, as drafted, would spend millions of dollars on a system that would do little to make court records more readily available to the public.
The draft report, however, states that privacy interests demand that public documents not be made widely accessible online — preserving the courts’ veil of “practical obscurity.”
The Transparency and Privacy Task Force is scheduled to send its recommendations on bringing Maine courts into the digital age to the Supreme Judicial Court at the end of September.
The high court officials who convened the group see its work as vital.
“The public deserves electronic access to its government,” Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said in a February speech lobbying the Legislature for $15 million to move court records online. “Case information, schedules and public documents should be easily accessible.”
But the task force has developed recommendations that would only give lawyers and their clients online access to case files, according to a draft report obtained by the Bangor Daily News, even though members of the public can get the same documents in hard copy at the courthouse.
Although the report is not finalized, this proposal is receiving pushback from public access advocates.
“If a paper document is available to the public at a courthouse, it should also be available to the public if the document is online,” Jim Campbell, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said. “This is the premise under which the Legislature funded the electronic filing of court records project.”
Campbell said he had not seen the draft report but is aware of some of its recommendations.
A bill submitted by Gov. Paul LePage to allow the judicial branch to issue bonds for up to $15 million to pay for the an electronic document system was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee in March. But it was not passed before Legislature adjourned in June.
In a 20-page draft report, the task force contends that limiting online access to public documents is important for maintaining privacy.
Even though Maine’s court records are “presumptively accessible” to the general public, the fact that they exist only in hard copy at the state courthouses shrouds them in “practical obscurity,” the report states.
“For many years, the courts and public have relied upon the practical obscurity doctrine to protect confidential, sensitive, and embarrassing information,” states the draft, which is dated Sept. 13.
The United States federal courts make case files publically available online through a paid system, and many other states have digital court filing programs.
The 21-member task force does recommend making some documents other than case files — such as docket sheets and hearing notices — generally accessible online. And it states that case files should still be available to the public at a courthouse, where they can be subject to copying fees.
Members of the public should also be able to set up online notifications to let them know when they can get new case files in hard copy, the report recommends. And “justice partners” and state agencies should have online access to specific case information at the courts’ discretion.
Justice Ann Murray, the task force chairperson, did not respond to a request for comment.
Judicial branch spokeswoman Mary Ann Lynch initially declined to provide a copy of the draft report, saying it is “a work in progress.” After being informed that the BDN had later obtained a copy, she declined to speak on the record about the report and did not respond to written questions by a stated deadline.
According to task force member Mal Leary, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and a longtime political correspondent with Maine Public, he and other members are submitting their comments on the draft this week and hope to send a final report to the court by Sept. 30.
The Bangor Daily News and Maine Public have a story-sharing partnership.
Leary declined to comment on the draft beyond saying that he intends to submit a “very in-depth dissent.”
Leary said that soon after a BDN reporter began asking about the draft, Laura O’Hanlon, the courts’ chief of communication, information and access, emailed task force members telling them not to discuss it with the media.
O’Hanlon declined to comment.