Monday, December 04, 2006

PA S Ct Issues Electronic Public Access Policy

On November 30, 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced a new "Electronic Public Access Policy" in a press release found here issued by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today announced a new Public Access Policy Governing Electronic Case Records of the Unified Judicial System. The policy standardizes the availability of computer-generated case information while safeguarding the safety and privacy of citizens.

The new policy takes effect Jan. 1, 2007, following formal public notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 2, 2006. The extraordinary amount of new information available with automation, particularly the recently completed Common Pleas Criminal Court Case Management System, prompted the development of the uniform statewide policy.

For some time, federal courts in Pennsylvania have addressed court electronic records, such as the United States District Court for the Eastern District of PA with its online PACER system, and the United States District Court for the Middle District of PA with its similar Electronic Case Filing system.

The new policy for Pennsylvania's state court system was the result of several years of study by, and public comment to, the "Public Access Ad Hoc Committee" of the AOPC, chaired by David S. Price, under supervision of Zygmont A. Pines, the Court Administrator of Pennsylvania.

Initially, on September 19, 2005, the AOPC had issued a Press Release entitled "AOPC Seeks Input on Public Access Guidelines Governing Electronic Court Records", found here, seeking comment on a draft of a proposed public access policy that would apply statewide to electronic court case records.

Growing availability of court records over the Internet, coupled with increased concern regarding personal privacy and security - including the increased potential for identity theft and fraud - prompted the AOPC three years ago to address the relatively new issues presented by the advent of electronic access to case files.

At the direction of the state court administrator, an AOPC ad hoc committee crafted the proposed policy. The group found widespread differences nationwide in how public access to court records is governed.

It noted that a formal notice had appeared in the Pennsylvania Bulletin on September 17, 2005, which published the initial 5-page draft of such a policy, and which announced an initial 60-day comment period.

Businesses, public-interest groups, the media (see the 5-page comments by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association here), and government officials then commented in response to the initial and subsequent AOPC requests for input.

Some newspapers offered critical, even negative, comment in print, such as the Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA), in its editorial entitled "Broaden access to court records", published November 25, 2005, found online here.

The recent Press Release quoted the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, Ralph J. Cappy, who acknowledged the two opposite objectives confronting the Court's study committee:

"Pennsylvania's Judiciary is committed to making the courts as open and accessible as possible to the Commonwealth's citizens and ensuring the integrity of information." * * *

"By the same token, we are mindful of the damage that unscrupulous use of computer information can cause citizens, so we have worked hard to listen to every view regarding electronic accessibility and tried to responsibly accommodate their views."
The recently-announced final, 6-page "Electronic Case Records Public Access Policy of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania" was approved by the Supreme Court pursuant to the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. §4301(b), and filed with the AOPC on November 20, 2006. The explanatory report for the final policy, together with other related information, can be found on the public access webpage located at

Section 2 of the Policy states the general policy:
  • This policy covers all electronic case records.
  • The public may inspect and obtain electronic case records except as provided by law or as set forth in this policy.
  • A court or office may not adopt for electronic case records a more restrictive access policy or provide greater access than that provided for in this policy.
In Section 3, the Court mandates that certain types of information in an electronic case record will be excluded from public access:
  • A. social security numbers;
  • B. operator license numbers;
  • C. victim information including name, address and other contact information;
  • D. informant information including name, address and other contact information;
  • E. juror information including name, address and other contact information;
  • F. a party’s street address, except the city, state, and ZIP code may be released;
  • G. witness information including name, address and other contact information;
  • H. SID (state identification) numbers;
  • I. financial institution account numbers, credit card numbers, PINS or passwords used to secure accounts;
  • J. notes, drafts, and work products related to court administration or any office that is the primary custodian of an electronic case record;
  • K. information sealed or protected pursuant to court order;
  • L. information to which access is otherwise restricted by federal law, state law, or state court rule; and
  • M. information presenting a risk to personal security, personal privacy, or the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice, as determined by the Court Administrator of Pennsylvania with the approval of the Chief Justice.
Later sections of the Policy address in detail other areas of concern:
  • FEES
The AOPC Press Release indicates that the Policy will continue to evolve in this fast-changing landscape where legal rights and information technology intersect:
AOPC staff will continue to evaluate the policy as the technological and legal landscape changes. Future staff attention is expected to turn to such issues as the creation of sensitive data information forms that litigants would be required to complete when filing any document with a court, and other initiatives that strike an appropriate balance for public access.
As indicated above, the new Policy will take effect on January 1, 2007.

The new Policy, its explanatory comments, a matrix distilling public-comment issues and the committee's response to those issues,
standard forms for use by the public and governmental officials, and archived material developed during the study process, all can be found online here.