Maine’s judiciary has seen the sunlight: Court records will one day be available online.
The decision announced by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley earlier this month stands to open blinds on parts of the state’s judiciary that are difficult to access, currently requiring journalists, activists and members of the public to travel to courthouses in each county to read paper case files.
In those files, residents, businesspeople and government officials ask the government for something big: to deliver them justice under the law. They raise a hand to point out perceived wrongdoing. They put their names to sworn statements about what happened, to whom.
For that reason, these court records are incredibly important to understanding much of what happens in our state. It’s why newspapers, including this one, urged the court toward full public access online.
The justices deserve credit for heeding that call, siding with the lone dissenting voice on a task force they assembled to study the move to digital court records. And that lone voice, Maine Public’s Mal Leary, deserves credit as well.
That process, and the court’s decision itself, embodies the judiciary’s critical role, letting adversarial parties into the same room for intense, engaged debate and, hopefully, emerging with something closer to the truth and something closer to justice. Unpopular arguments can win the day.
The federal judiciary has put its records online for years, charging a per-page-fee. Many other states have put their court records online as well.
While the Maine judiciary will charge fees to access court filings, the decision dramatically expands who can peer into Maine’s courtrooms to see just how the third branch of government is meting out justice.
Electronic access will allow more people to see just how cases are being decided, particularly those who would otherwise have to drive long distances to review paper files, as the current policy requires.
It will give people a better idea of what to expect if they end up in front of a judge. Parties representing themselves can have much greater access to research they need to undertake the difficult task of going into a case by themselves.
It will help inform the public and other branches of government about the inner workings of the judiciary.
And it will hopefully allow researchers, journalists and activists to explore patterns in cases statewide that could point to bigger patterns or problems.
The court should consider those benefits of lowering barriers to access as it sets fees for people to get into the system. They should be as low as possible to ensure the records are not accessible in name only.
Let the sunshine in.
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