Lawmakers consider closing book on court records

Thursday, March 26, 1998

Advocates for open access to court records are rallying to defeat measures in two states to seal arrest and search warrants from public view.

A Texas judicial committee, after pressure from Freedom-of-Information advocates, scrapped plans to seal arrest and search warrants. But one FOI expert says the state still has questionable measures in the new guidelines.

Maryland lawmakers, meanwhile, have not given up their efforts to seal court records from public inspection.

The Texas Judicial Council's Committee on Court Records originally drafted guidelines for state courts that would have authorized judges to block the disclosure of search and arrest warrants to the public. State District Judge Mike Wood, committee chairman, last week eliminated that provision, saying that it was never the group's intention to “change existing law.”

According to FOI advocate Walt Borges, criticism from news groups and community activists prompted the committee to back down.

But Borges, director of Court Watch, a judicial-monitoring program of Texas Citizen Action, said that provisions remain in the proposed guidelines which give judges the power to deny requests for information if they believe the person requesting the information is harassing the court or interfering with its operations.

“Who determines when someone is 'harassing the court?'” Borges asked. Also, Borges insists that judges need to address the excessive costs that some courts charge for copying documents or providing access to court records.

The full judicial council is scheduled to discuss the guidelines April 16.

Meanwhile, in Maryland legislation proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening would prohibit the public from access to criminal arrest warrants before they are served on the accused.

The measure, prompted by newspaper articles about lawyers who use the information to solicit clients, was supported last week by both the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Jim Keat, Maryland's Project Sunshine chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, said that the media and the public are suffering from the misuse of information that has always been available to them.

News organizations “understand the problem: the information was being abused by private lawyers looking for clients,” Keat said. “But now the public is being penalized.”

Keat, a retired newspaper editor, said: “We don't say 'press;' we take the position that it's the public's right of access. …It's a 'public' right.””

If the legislation wins final approval, it will take effect June 1.