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Access to court data mulled

Panel seeks public input on changes in viewing of records

A committee working to balance individual privacy interests with the public's right to view court records has concluded that individual records should remain public — which already is the law — but mass compilations of records generally should be closed.

The Committee on Privacy and Public Court Records formally submitted its report to the Judicial Council on Monday. The council now is seeking public input regarding the report's recommendations.

If these recommendations are adopted, it would mean that a reporter, for example, could still search an individual's drunken-driving arrests. But there would not be an easily obtained record of how a particular judge has handled DUIs over a certain period of time.

Individual court records currently are public. Anyone can go to a courthouse or use the online court data system, if that person has access to it, to check a particular case or individual. It also is possible to go through a particular judge's calendar and check how cases have been handled over time, although that would be time-consuming.

One of the stickiest problems the committee faced was what to do with massive amounts of records, or "aggregate" records, which can be made more and more available as courthouses move into the technology age.

Media outlets want large batches of records to crunch numbers and do trend stories. Scholars want them to do academic research. Commercial entities might begin seeking them as money-making opportunities.

One central problem for the committee was that it was charged with achieving a sensitive balance between what the public wants or needs to know, and the insistence of such entities — particularly the media — for easier and quicker ways to get information, which some might argue is not necessarily the court's primary responsibility.

Some committee members have argued for full openness with all records, but other members feared mass compilation of cases might compromise the privacy of individuals — especially if identifying information was included in those records.

"The United States Supreme Court has held that privacy interests are at their highest when the record being considered is a compilation of other records, and that the compilation can be closed even though the individual records are open," the report said.

However, the committee does not think all aggregate information be closed.

"To the contrary, we recommend that a great deal of aggregate data be publicly available: more than is currently the case and with an easier process for making even more data available in the future.

"The proposed rule restricts only aggregate data that contains personal identifying information, even if that information is available in single records. We further recommend that the indexes into the database remain public, and that there be a streamlined process for adding indexes to those that already exist," the report states. "The recommendations represent a conservative but significant step forward in increasing public access while remaining sensitive to privacy concerns."

"Unregulated access to aggregate data is a significant departure from the status quo that threatens to open the floodgates to an unknown future in which — even as financial institutions, insurance companies, health-care providers and other private entities restrict access to personal information — court records become the exception that swallows the rule of privacy."