At a time when many government agencies are putting more information online, the Massachusetts courts have abruptly moved in the opposite direction, raising concerns among journalists, lawyers, prosecutors, and court employees alike.
Earlier this month, the courts suddenly halted online access to basic data in most superior court criminal cases, making it harder for attorneys, as well as journalists and prosecutors, to keep tabs on ongoing court cases or to verify the outcome of old ones.
"We're looking for an explanation," said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, adding that attorneys now must visit more courthouses in person to check on cases. "It is going to make attorneys' jobs much harder to do and will cost clients more money."
The state courts have allowed journalists and attorneys to look up basic information for almost every superior court criminal case, including the status of the case and schedule for upcoming hearings, since at least the 1990s. Reporters and attorneys were customarily given a special account to get access to the information.
Two years ago, the court system stopped issuing accounts to journalists — saying its new $75 million computer system lacked that capability — but told reporters they could continue to monitor cases by borrowing a password from an attorney.
But the new restrictions bar anyone from viewing criminal cases online, except for attorneys who have already made an official court appearance in the case on behalf of a client. That means even criminal attorneys might not be able to access cases for new clients or cases that were handled by colleagues. Many journalists have been blocked entirely from looking up criminal cases in superior courts on the Web.
A spokeswoman for the court system, Erika Gully-Santiago, said Wednesday that the courts decided to cut off access to the information after discovering that "multiple Internet-based entities have been systematically" downloading data on cases.
"The Information Services Department recommended limiting access to criminal docket information available on the attorney portal as quickly as possible to circumvent additional data harvesting," Gully-Santiago said.
The courts refused to provide details, however, about who downloaded the information, what was done with the data, or how it may have caused concern. Even before the change, the courts generally did not make personal information, such as Social Security numbers or financial information, readily available online.
Gully-Santiago described the change to block access to the records as an interim move, while the Supreme Judicial Court considers new rules on how the public and attorneys can access criminal cases in the future. A court committee recently proposed that the public be able to access basic information on most criminal cases by looking up cases by case number. That would require people to know the docket number for cases they're interested in, rather than just searching for defendants' names. In addition, attorneys would be able to find additional information on their own cases by logging in.
Until the new rules take effect, Gully-Santiago said, people could still look up information on court cases in person.
But Michael A. Sullivan, clerk of the courts in Middlesex, said the move could put a strain on busy clerks, who will now have to field more questions from journalists, attorneys, and prosecutors.
"I'm already getting the e-mails," Sullivan said.
The move also alarmed journalists and their attorneys, who said the change will make it much more difficult for reporters to cover the courts.
"A journalist cannot keep tabs on a criminal case without reviewing the docket on a regular basis," said Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney at Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye who represents many news organizations. "There are only so many times a busy beat reporter can be expected to drive to far-flung superior courts to see if anything new has been filed or any new hearings scheduled. "
This month's action also appears to violate a 2003 Supreme Judicial Court policy that requires the courts to provide basic information on the Internet about almost every court case, including criminal cases. And last year, the Legislature ordered the courts to come up with a plan to provide docket information about civil and criminal cases to the public.
Gully-Santiago said the courts have asked the SJC to modify its 2003 policy slightly, but ultimately hope to comply with orders to provide public access to criminal case information once the new rules are approved.
In the meantime, she pointed out, the courts have already expanded online access to docket information about civil cases. Members of the public can now look up basic information on most civil cases in the state without a password.
But the courts have been more reluctant to share data on criminal cases. For example, the courts recently rejected a request by the Globe to identify cases in which people were convicted of rape but given no prison time.
By contrast, a number of major court systems around the country, including in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Alaska, currently provide online access to basic information about criminal cases to everyone. The federal courts allow online access to both data and documents for almost every case.
Still, William Raftery, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, said that online access to court records varies widely. And even courts that provide access sometimes require users to register or pay a fee, or they block access to certain types of cases.
But the latest move has made it harder for even prosecutors to access information on criminal cases in Massachusetts. And many district attorneys found out about the new restrictions only when their staff logged into the computer system this month and found they were blocked from viewing many cases.
"We were never consulted about it," said Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, president of Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
Capeless said he is puzzled why the courts have restricted online access to basic criminal case information online at all, since the information is readily available to the public in person and court officials have gone to the trouble of creating an Internet portal.
"I don't understand," Capeless said. "If they set up a system for online access, why are they limiting access to it?"