December 21, 2016

Supreme Court to weigh expanding online court records access to press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is set to decide whether or not to extend online access of court records to journalists next month.

While some praise the proposed change as a move toward more transparency, others cite a growing distrust of news media as a reason for access to remain the same.

Most court records are already available to the public, but only in-person through the clerk’s office in respective court houses. Online court records are only available to lawyers and court officials.

The proposed rule would allow journalists, law enforcement officials and people representing themselves in court to apply for online access to court records.

The Judicial Information Systems Council approved the rule changes last week and sent their recommendation to the high court.

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government President Greg Williams said expanded access is a move in the right direction.

“We think that the new policy is a good step forward,” Williams said. “It does increase access to public records.”

The rule would increase access, but stops short of full online access to the general public. Court officials said that’s due to a lack of resources.

New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman Barry Massey said the plan is to eventually allow general public access to the online records. But first, the courts  need better software to redact personal information.

“The Judiciary is seeking $1.25 million for redaction software during the upcoming 60-day session of the Legislature,” Massey said. “We understand the fiscal constraints facing the state, but we’re hopeful the Legislature will support the funding as a needed investment in governmental transparency that will benefit all New Mexicans.”

According to New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), public agencies are allowed, but not required, to redact sensitive information before releasing printed records. The same law however, prohibits public agencies from publishing some sensitive information online.

Williams said since the journalists disseminate information to the public, easier access is better for the state. But some members of the public disagree and said news outlets can’t be trusted.

Opponent Michael Hoeferkamp submitted his concern online.

“The press should NOT have any greater access than the public,” Hoeferkamp wrote.

He reiterated concerns brought up during the presidential elections, often by supporters of President-elect Donald Trump.

“The ‘press’ has become very subjective, combative and deceitful,” Hoeferkamp wrote. “When CNN is shown to have given primary debate questions to [Hillary] Clinton in advance, we know the press cannot be trusted with confidential records.”

In October WikiLeaks released an email showing that a Democratic Party operative, who also had a contract with CNN, leaked a primary debate question to the Clinton campaign.

Albuquerque attorney Lori Millet said increased access for journalists would be problematic.

“The press cannot be relied upon to accurately report on legal proceedings,” Millet wrote in an email, adding that journalists would misinterpret information on behalf of the public. “That does not help anyone.”

To be clear,  court records are already  available to the public and the press, just not online.

In public comments to the court, members of the local news media praised the proposal, saying it would help get information to the public faster.

Ruidoso News reporter David Tomlin said the rule change would save him and his colleagues long trips to the the court house.

“If we see that a pleading, motion or other document has been submitted in a newsworthy case, we must drive 35 miles to the courthouse in Carrizozo during business hours to obtain a paper copy from the court clerk,” Tomlin wrote. “Significant news is often delayed, and of course we spend on the road that could otherwise be used more efficiently.”

Editor and Publisher of the Espanola based Rio Grande Sun Robert Trapp supported the rule change for similar reasons.

He  added his reporters already have access to sensitive information and routinely decide not to publish it. “This information is never part of a story and we’re not in the business of compromising someone’s identity,” Trapp wrote.

The proposed rule broadly defines journalists as “any person who regularly gathers, prepares, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information about matters of public interest in any medium and who successfully applies to participate in online access and agrees to comply with all court rules.”

The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on the proposal at a scheduled administrative meeting in early January.