State Supreme Court upholds transparency standards for key judicial records
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Published: 13-Dec-2011


The Oklahoma state Supreme Court has filed New Rule 31, rules for the state’s district courts, using language that will largely assure openness and transparency is retained for judicial records. Open record advocates had opposed earlier draft language, and offered praise for the outcome in interviews with CapitolBeatOK.

Chief Justice Steven Taylor, joined by Justice Yvonne Kauger, gave a direct and expansive interpretation of the new rule (formally issued Monday, December 12) in a note concurring in the unanimous result. 

Taylor wrote that the rule “affirms the doctrine that (other than those sealed or closed by long-established law) every document riled with the Court Clerk is a public record. And this rule does not prohibit the inclusion of any information in any filed document. Information included in a document will be determined by the filer.” (emphasis in the original)

Mark Thomas, president of the Oklahoma Press Association, told CapitolBeatOK, “The result of this is that the general public, and those of us in the news business, will see the same records and information as those in the court system see. This result maintains the faith and trust in the judiciary that is so important to our system.”

M. Scott Carter, president of the Oklahoma Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said, "The professional chapter of SPJ Oklahoma is very pleased by this ruling. We appreciate the assistance from FOI and others. We look forward to working with the courts to ensure that public information remains public."

Joey Senat of FOI (freedom of information) Oklahoma also applauded the new rule in its final form. 

Senat, an associate professor at Oklahoma State University, commented on FOI Oklahoma’s blog, “The court's decision Monday is a victory for the public's need to know in Oklahoma. The public has an interest in identifying elected officials, government employees and public figures involved in court actions. Oklahomans also have an interest in knowing more about the people in their lives, including those they do business with and those chosen to care for children. 

 

“The decision also helps individual Oklahomans distinguish themselves from others with similar names who are involved in court actions. In that way, the rule protects the privacy of Oklahomans.”

Senat said the outcome was “a surprise” in light of a court ruling last summer the restricted the public’s right to know information about government employees. In that ruling, Taylor and Kauger had dissented. 

Today (Tuesday, December 13), Nolan Clay, in a news story for The Oklahoman reported, “Justices in September asked for public input on a proposal that would have kept out of court records basic personal information such as where a criminal defendant lives.

“Prosecutors, businesses, private investigators, the state sheriffs' association, the news media and others strongly objected.

“Justices backed off the original proposal completely. Instead, they issued a new rule Monday that imposes no restrictions on criminal and traffic records.”

Michael D. Evans, administrative director of the Courts for Oklahoma, had circulated a letter on September 20 announcing proposed Rule 31, with language now set aside by the state High Court. Opportunities for comment ended November 4. 
 
The earlier draft rules would have allowed significant withholding of information, drawing strict and critical scrutiny from news organizations, law enforcement officials and others. Earlier draft language touching “filing of documents under seal” drew the ire of the OPA’s Thomas, speaking on behalf of dozens of newspaper publishers and editors.

Thomas wrote in a November 4 letter, as part of the public comments period, the “under seal” language was “a completely abhorrent section that allows any party to request that any pleading, paper or exhibit or other document be sealed. A redacted version will be filed for the public record. Why does the Judiciary need two sets of books to administer justice?”

In that letter, Thomas rejected “parallel [record] systems, one for the Judges and Officers of the Court and another for the public.” 

Remaining confidential in this framework will be records in the juvenile, adoption, mental health and guardianship systems. Limited filings, in the new rule “may” be limited in civil, divorce and probate records or victim protection orders, but that is not required. 

The new rules, which take effect immediately, allowing use of “the last four digits” of social security, taxpayer identification, financial account and driver’s license numbers.

In CapitolBeatOK’s analysis of response to the final rules, only the words “unless otherwise ordered” drew any concern for leaving at least some “wiggle room” for judicial discretion. 

In a commentary, this writer had also argued against the new rules as contrary to the best interests of the judiciary itself. 

Reporters and editors offered many examples as to how inaccuracies in news reports were avoided because a dutiful reporter could check court records to determine exactly who is being charged with a crime or is otherwise involved in the legal system.

The ruling, dated Monday, is SCAD No. 2011-86, creating new Rule 31, 12 O.S. Ch.2, App., Rules for the District Courts of Oklahoma.

Note: The editor of CapitolBeatOK, McGuigan is the author or editor of ten books, including “A Blueprint for Judicial Reform,” “Criminal Justice Reform: A Blueprint,” “Crime & Punishment in Modern America,” and “The Politics of Direct Democracy: Case Studies in Popular Decision Making.” 

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