Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court listens to arguments in a case in Portland in this BDN file photo.

The judiciary Thursday announced that the public would be able to access some court documents online once the $15 million electronic case filing system is implemented over the next few years, but that it would not be free.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley said that the system would be similar to the federal judiciary’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER. Subscribers to that system pay both an annual fee and a fee for each page viewed online.

The court has not yet determined what the cost for that system will be, who will be able to subscribe or what kinds of cases will be available on the internet.

Saufley made the unexpected announcement as a hearing on proposed rules submitted by a task force on transparency and privacy got underway at the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta. The task force recommended the public not have online access to court documents.

The chief justice’s announcement caught speakers who’d lined up to oppose the proposed rules off guard, including Mal Leary of Maine Public. He was the only member of the task force to recommend that what currently is public on paper at a courthouse should be public online.

“I was pleased to hear the chief justice state the court has already decided that all public court records will be available on the internet,” he said in an email after the three-hour hearing. “This is what I proposed in my dissent, that the court should not set up a system with some records online and others only available to the public at the courthouse. This is a victory for common sense.”

Representatives from the state’s major daily newspapers — the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal — and the Maine Broadcasters Association all told the justices that they welcomed Saufley’s decision that some court documents would be public.

“This is good news for communities around Maine that depend on news about the court system,” Dan MacLeod, managing editor of the BDN, said after the hearing. “As the judiciary develops more specific policies around the use of the digital system, I hope that it continues to consider the public’s need for transparency.”

Journalists were not the only people advocating for public access to court documents. First Amendment advocates, lawyers and a private investigator also supported online access. Attorneys and prosecutors in Maine’s juvenile justice system strongly urged the court to seal all cases involving minors.

Under state law, divorce cases involving children, child protective cases and juvenile criminal cases that do not involve felonies are sealed from the public. Saufley said those categories could be expanded under the new rules or by the Legislature.

A paper issued last July tiled, “Best Practices for Court Privacy Formulation,” written by the National Center for State Courts and the State Justice Institute, both located in Virginia, recommended that documents that are public at the courthouse should be public online.

The chief justice’s statement Thursday echoed what she told Legislature in 2014 when she sought approval to issue the $15 million in bonds to fund the digital case filing system.

“I know that I don’t have to tell you, the Maine Legislature, that the public deserves electronic access to its government,” Saufley said. “I can go online from anywhere and find the pending bills, the sponsors and committee assignments, the status of those bills, both in the committee and on the floor, the language of proposed amendments, committee hearing dates, and all written testimony.

“We seek nothing less for Maine people’s access to justice,” she continued. “Case information, schedules and public documents should be easily accessible. And the system must be carefully designed to assure that certain private information, such as Social Security numbers or victims’ addresses, are well protected.”

Saufley said Thursday that early this fall the revised rules would be available on the court’s website and public comment on them would be sought, after which the final version would be promulgated.

The violations bureau, which handled more than 86,000 traffic tickets and more than 50,000 other civil violations in the year that ended June 30, 2017, is scheduled to begin going online this fall.

Courts in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties will be the pilot project for the implementation of the electronic case filing system in late summer or early fall of 2019, according to information posted on the court system’s website. In the year that ended June 30, 2017, more 15,000 new cases, half of which were criminal cases, were filed in those counties, about 3,400 fewer than were filed in Cumberland County.

The completion date for implementation of the system statewide is December 2021.

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