Maine courts have regularly sealed off certain public court records years after a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional.
In 2015, Maine’s court system began to automatically seal cases in which defendants were not convicted 30 days after their dismissal, the Press Herald reported. When a case is sealed, the maneuvers and outcome of the proceedings are not available to the public, including the media.
After opposition from media organizations, the courts said they would stop the policy in 2016, the Press Herald reported. A 1989 federal appeals court case had found blanket restriction on such records to be unconstitutional.
However, that change never occurred — the judiciary’s computer system had still been set to seal records automatically. State officials told the Press Herald that that is no longer the case, and that the courts will open cases that had been improperly sealed.
Unlike many states, Maine does not have any laws governing the sealing or expunging of records of adult convictions and does not hamper public access to records where the defendant was not convicted. Many states do so to avoid resulting issues for the accused, including in employment.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston adjudicated the very issue in the 1989 case Globe Newspaper Co. v. Pokaski. The case went to the courts after two Boston Globe reporters were denied access to court records for criminal cases in which there was no conviction.
The court found that a complete restriction on public access to court records for cases where the defendant was not convicted violated the First Amendment’s presumption of access to court proceedings. The ruling applies to Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island.