Privacy/Public Access to Court Records

Resource Guide

While the concept of open court records has been the cornerstone of judicial integrity, courts have long been challenged to use their own discretion in the delicate balance between the harm that may be rendered by the disclosure of certain sensitive information contained in the court record and a “fully open” court record. The advancement of technology has raised complex issues regarding privacy, document certification, standards, and systems interoperability, as both state and federal judiciaries have adopted the Internet as a means to display documents and provide direct, rapid, and easy access to official court information, forcing states to take a fresh look on their privacy policies.  

Links to related online resources are listed below. Non-digitized publications may be borrowed from the NCSC Library; call numbers are provided.


Featured Links

Public Access Vendors. National Center for State Courts.

Public Access Vendors from the Court Technology Vendor list.

Court Technology Bulletin. National Center for State Courts. This online version of the Court Technology Bulletin features cutting edge information about technology and the court community.
Zelner, Tisha. Digitization of Library Collections: The Future is Now. (2005). Future Trends in State Courts.

As the trend toward online delivery of information continues, expect the libraries serving courts to digitize rare and scarce materials in their collections into forms that may be delivered to users 24/7 via intranets and the Internet.

Issue: Privacy/Access. National Center for State Courts. The Government Relations division of NCSC describes the impact, position, and summary on the issue of Privacy and Access in Congress.
The ROI of Emerging Technologies.

Presentation from the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Court Technology Conference. Highlights of Manatee County Florida's decision of not going with a "less paper" approach.

General

Greacen, John. Washington State Access to Court Information Project Survey. (2013).

The Washington Access to Justice Board, in cooperation with the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts, commissioned a survey of state court administrators in states with elected clerks of court and statewide automated case management information systems (whether or not they are actually used by every trial court in the state). They identified twenty-four such states, nineteen responded.  The report identifies the level of public access to court records online in each of the responding states.

Access Guidelines to Court Records. State of Connecticut Judicial Branch Connecticut defines access to court records for public understanding.
Concept Paper on Access to Court Records. (August 2000). Paper prepared by the Conference of State Court Administrators  (COSCA) for policy position on "access to courts."
Larson, Susan Jennen. Court Record Access Policies: Under Pressure from State Security Breach Laws?. (2006). Future Trends in State Courts.

Courts are affected by national trends in privacy legislation. Over the past ten years, many courts have reevaluated and modified public access record policies to increase protections on personal information in court records, especially as court records are made available via the Internet. As private-sector data is more heavily regulated, and as state legislatures enact state security breach laws to protect consumer privacy and ward off identity theft, court record access policies may be under continued pressure to conform.

Steketee, Martha and Alan Carlson. Developing CCJ/COSCA Guidelines for Public Access to Court Records: A National Project to Assist State Courts. (October 2002).

This project began as an effort of the Justice Management Institute (JMI), the Joint Technology Committee of the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), and the National Association of Court Management (NACM). The State Justice Institute funded the initial state of the project beginning in January 2001 to: review current state policies, hold several meetings of an advisory committee comprised of court professionals and others interested in access to court records, and produce a final product that would provide a "model policy" and commentary following the format and intent of American Bar Association model rules.

Robinson, David, Harlan Yu, William Zeller, and Edward Felton. Government Data and the Invisible Hand. (2009). Yale Journal on Law and Technology.

This article argues that the government must alter its role as an information provider and create a simple, reliable, and publically accessible infrastructure that "exposes" the underlying data, rather than by providing web sites aimed at meeting each end-user need.

McMillan, James E. How Digital Rights Management (DRM)Technology Will Change the Way Courts Work. (2006). Future Trends in State Courts.

New technology will allow courts to better serve the public by protecting digital information. Court technical staff needs to begin working with policy makers to test and tehn implement this new technology and modify both court and legal processes to take advantage of these new capabilities.

Tembeckjian Judicial Disciplinary Hearings Should Be Open. (2007). Justice System Journal (Vol. 28, No. 3).

This article examines the disciplinary process in place to deal with judges partaking in unethical behavior, arguing that these incidents should be dealt with publicly to ensure honesty and public knowledge, and discusses the adoption of "sunshine laws" by 35 states.

New Internet Kiosks Make Courts More User-Friendly. (January 2007). The Washington Post The D.C. Superior Court has installed Internet kiosks which allow people to pay court fines, access information, and eventually access court records.
N.H. Courts Move Slowly Toward Public Internet Access.. (January 2007). The Salem News This article describes some of the problems the New Hampshire courts face when trying to update their current operating software.  The new software will allow improved public access to court records as far back as 1988.
Sudbeck, Lynn E. Placing Court Records Online: Balancing Public and Private Interests. (2006). Justice System Journal (Vol. 27, No. 3).

This article discusses the issues involved in placing court records online. The author examines case law concerning privacy and public access, guidelines issued by court administration organizations, and ideas presented in law review articles.

Sudbeck, Lynn E. Placing Court Records Online: Balancing the Public and Private Interests. (2006). The Justice System Journal, vol. 27, no. 3.

This article examines case law governing public access and privacy interests involving court records and electronic-access-policy guidelines recently issued by federal and state court administrative organizations. It further reviews ideas and solutions proposed in recent law reviews regarding access and privacy issues, as well as recommends guidelines for electronic access to court records that balance judicial accountability and efficiency with public trust and confidence.

Practical Guidance in Evaluating the Use of Automated Search and Retrieval Methods. (Fall 2007). The Sedona Conference Journal.

This article gives eight "practice points" on the benefits of automated retrieval methods, as well as reasons why it is necessary and what needs to be done to ensure that it is used properly.

Larson, Susan Jennen. Public Access and the National Landscape of Data Regulation. (2005). Future Trends in State Courts.

As state courts review and modify public-access policy in response to Internet technology and concerns about privacy, they do so within a new national landscape of data regulation that requires increased compliance, security, and accountability, not only from courts but also from executive-branch agencies and the private sector.

Carlson, Alan and Martha Steketee. Public Access to Court Records: Implementing the CCJ/COSCA Guidelines Final Project Report. (November 2005).

This report tracks the work that has taken place since the CCJ/COSCA endorsed 2002 Guidelines. It provides additional language, discussion, and exemplars that address three distinct areas: materials for educating litigants and the public, expanded considerations of the challenges of access to family court records, and considerations of internal court policies and procedures.

Clarke, Thomas. Recent Trends in Public Access Policies. (May 2007). Federal/State Court Technology Conference, Pennsylvania PowerPoint presentation relating to the results of a 21 state survey on Public Access Policies. 
Report on the Public`s Access to Legal Information and Assistance in Wisconsin. (2005). Law Librarians Association of Wisconsin This report evaluates the current level of public accessibility to court records in the state of Wisconsin and makes recommendations for changes to ensure a higher level of service to both litigants and the public. 
Schultze, Stephen and Shubham Mukherjee. Selling the Law: The Business of Public Access to Court Records. (February 2009). Center for Information Technology Policy - Princeton University

Lecture available online in video.  With widespread digitization and Internet connectivity courts must now address the task of revamping outmoded policies and funding structures in order to align their practice with this reality.

South Dakota Codified Laws: 16-18-32. . South Dakota Legislature South Dakota has a statute that allows an attorney to temporarily remove files from offices of clerks of court.
Washington Courts: Access to Court Records Brochure.. The state of Washington issued a brochure  to assist the public in understanding how to access court records and the restrictions on access. It is a guide and not a legal document.  

Privacy Issues

Computer Glitch Blamed for Secret Dockets. (July 2006). Law.com Computer problems in Broward and Palm Beach counties (Florida) are responsible for erasing some civil court cases from the public record.
Anderson, Hon. Paul H. Future Trends in Public Access: Court Information, Privacy, and Technology. (2011). Future Trends in State Courts.

More and more, the public is demanding instant access to all sorts of information electronically. What are the responsibilities of the courts in safeguarding sensitive, case-related data and in regulating the use of social media during court proceedings?

Harris, Blake Hung Jury. (April 2003). Government Technology Magazine. The Internet and other technological innovations have made court records available in electronic form, offering access that is easier and more widespread than ever before as state courts struggle to find the balance between electronic access and privacy rights.  .
Greiner, John In Letter, Justice cites Crime Fears. (March 2008). newsOK.com, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Besides removing pleadings from the Internet, the new court rules in Oklahoma prohibit anyone from filing court documents with personal identification information.
Walker, Douglas J. Information Technology Advances Push the Privacy Boundaries Again. (2008).

While the justice system strives to improve its ability to exchange information among organizations, technology-enabled identification and information collection activities race ahead on multiple fronts. These exciting advances raise the question of how we can reap the benefits without overstepping reasonable privacy boundaries.

While the justice system strives to improve its ability to exchange information among organizations, technology-enabled identification and information collection activities race ahead on multiple fronts. These exciting advances raise the question of how we can reap the benefits without overstepping reasonable privacy boundaries.

Gottlieb. Karen PhD, JD. It Is Public Information, What Is the Problem?. (2004). Swedish Institute of Computer Science - Presentation Using Court Information for Marketing in the United States. 
Schweikert, Mark Judges can Balance Online Access to Court Records. (January 2008). Columbus Dispatch; Columbus, Ohio The Ohio Judicial Conference shares the concern of the public and certain state legislators that publishing court records on the Internet takes public access to a new dimension.
Hannaford, Paula. Making the Case for Juror Privacy: A New Framework for Court Policies and Procedures. (2001).

A description of how multifaceted and nuanced the issue of juror privacy can be in the context of contemporary society.

Fuchs, Mary. New N.J. Supreme Court rule will open more evidence for public inspection. (August 2009). New Jersey Real Time News Records not open to residents after Sept. 1 will include financial information in divorce proceedings and what the court calls "personal indentifiers" such as Social Security, driver's license, insurance policy and credit card numbers.
Higgins, Michael Online Court Access Elusive: State Justices Hold Firm, Cite Privacy. (February 2007). The Chicago Tribune The Illinois Supreme Court is hesitant to place records online due to privacy concerns.  Critics say that not allowing public access to court records is costing clients time and money.
Opsahl, Andy. Privacy: Agencies Struggled to Redact Personal Data from Online Public Documents. (July 2008). Government Technology Magazine Public documents frequently contain Social Security numbers (SSNs), mothers' maiden names, signatures, minors' names and other red meat for identity thieves and stalkers.
Privacy and Public Access - COSCA Resolutions. (2003). Endorsing and Supporting Public Access to Court Records: Guidelines for Policy Development by State Courts and In Support of Congress Working with State Courts on the Issue of Social Security Number Redaction Requirement.
Nagel, Wil. Privacy Schmrivacy? Drafting Privacy Policy in an Integrated Justice Environment.. (June 2004). Illinois Integrated Criminal Justice Information Authority A report focusing on the creation of a privacy policy for integrated justice taking into account varying privacy interests.   
Carlson, Alan. Public Access to Court Records: Reducing the Risk of Disclosure of Personally Identifiable Information. (2007). Future Trends in State Courts.

As more courts become more digitized, there is an increased concern for potentially causing undue harm to court clients by putting personally identifiable information (PII) online. The author discusses the growing concern and offers possible approaches for limiting harm from disclosure.

Report on the National Task Force on Privacy, Technology and Criminal Justice. (August 2001). Findings and recommendations of Task Force on Privacy, Technology and Criminal Justice Information which was supported by BJS and SEARCH, and the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics.
Social Security Numbers Are Widely Available in Bulk and Online Records, but Changes to Enhance Security Are Occurring. (September 2008). United States Government Accountability Office

Results of a survey that asked "To what extent, for what reasons, and to whom are public records that may contain Social Security numbers (SSNs) available for bulk purchase and online?" and "What measures have been taken to protect SSNs that may be contained in these records"

Kirven, Mary Beth and Daniel Hall. Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. (June 2003).

White paper on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

Identity Theft and Court Records

Cadwallader, Bruce 6 suspected in ID theft via court Web site. (December 2007). Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, Ohio Police found that someone was randomly feeding Social Security numbers into Clerk Lori Tyack's site, which contained personal information for thousands of people charged with misdemeanors, some guilty of only a speeding ticket.
Dimas, Jose. A Focus on Identity Theft, Social Security Numbers and the Courts. (2006). Future Trends in State Courts.

This article examines the interest by federal policymakers to tackle the problem of identity theft by restricting the display of Social Security numbers in public documents. Social Security numbers are replete in court records such as probate files, land records, divorce documents, and other family-related court documents. This article will discuss the problem as well as the state court perspective on this issue and offer solutions that some state court systems are experimenting with to reduce the incidences of identity theft.

Police: ID thieves lifted personal info from court Web site. (December 2007). Ohio.com Police say hundreds of people in five states are victims of identity theft after someone lifted their Social Security numbers from a municipal court Web site.
Crowson, Charles Private Information Showing Up on Public Web Sites . (December 2007). Today`sTHV.com, Little Rock, Arkansas User discovered all of his information including social security number and date of birth on documents found on the Pulaski Circuit/County Clerk Web site
Public Records and Identity Theft. (March 2006). Concurring Opinions Repercussions from the Hamilton County, Ohio. public access web site.
Keith, Ann L. Trends in Identity Theft. (2006). Future Trends in State Courts.

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States, according to FBI statistics, resulting in a rising caseload of identity theft cases for state courts. This type of fraud can be accomplished anonymously, easily, and with a variety of low and high tech means. This article includes information on the types of identification theft, current legislation concerning ID theft, and the future trends of the crime.

Notification Services

Case Activity Notification Service and RSS Feed. Supreme Court of Ohio This notification service is a public courtesy. Subscribers are notified when something has been filed in a case as soon as the item is docketed
Case Notification. Public Access to Court Information, Maricopa County, Arizona Case Notification allows users to flag case(s) that they are interested in tracking.  When a change occurs on the "flagged" case, the user will be notified via e-mail that something has been updated on the case.
Notification Features. alacourt.com, State of Alabama Features include attorney tracking, name tracking, case monitoring and personalized calendar

Marriage Records

Marriage Records Database. A large database of the marriage records with instant records lookup from State and local Government agencies.  There is an access fee. 

Federal Courts

Access to Court Information Ever Expanding. (July 2007). The Third Branch: Newsletter of the Federal Courts Customers of the federal court’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system now have access, without charge, to district court written opinions
Civil Judgement Index Report . U. S. District Court - District of New Hampshire Access to this report is restricted and requires a login.  There is an access fee of 8 cents per page. 
Graves, Scott E. Electronic Filing in the Federal Appellate Courts. (2006). Justice System Journal (Vol. 27, No. 3).

In describing the Tenth Circuit's move towards electronic filing, the author explores the balance that must be met between technological advancements and personal privacy.

Electronic Public Access . (2007). U. S, Courts, Annual Report In FY 2007, the Electronic Public Access Program initiated two pilot projects endorsed by the Judicial Conference to expand electronic public access to case information. The program generated approximately $65 million in FY 2007 through the CM/ECF Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system.
Schultze, Stephen. Electronic Public Access Fees and the United States Federal Courts’ Budget: An Overview. (2010). Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

This draft working paper examines the role of user fees for public access to records in the budgeting process of the federal courts. It sketches the policy principles that have traditionally motivated open access, describes the administrative process of court budgeting, and traces the path of user fees to their present-day instantiation.

Pacer Coming Into Its Own at 20. (November 2008). The Third Branch Newsletter of the Federal Courts From a dozen participating courts, PACER has grown to include all bankruptcy, district, and appellate courts.
Pacer Service Center. The PACER Service Center is the Federal Judiciary's centralized registration, billing, and technical support center for electronic access to U.S. District, Bankruptcy, and Appellate court records.
Lochner, Todd. The Freedom of Information Act, Personal Privacy, and Litigants. (2005). Justice System Journal (Vol. 26, No. 2).

This article discusses the Freedom of Information Act and the common-law right of access to records of government officials as it relates to personal privacy in civil suits.