Does the public have a right to records about the inner workings of the state’s judicial system?
The Supreme Judicial Court had a chance to decide that question, but took a pass, ruling Monday that the issue had been rendered moot in a lawsuit over administrative documents kept by the Massachusetts Trial Court.
At issue was a request from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice for records about the race and gender of security department employees, and hiring and promotion practices for those workers.
In a 3-page opinion, justices said they didn’t have to take action in the case because the trial court voluntarily provided the records to the group. But Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for the committee, said state judicial system administrators only produced the documents after his organization sued.
“The troubling part about the decision is that kind of access should be available to all members of the public,” Sellstrom said Tuesday. “It should not take a lawsuit for the public to have access to this kind of basic demographic information.”
The group requested the documents under the state’s public records law in June 2016 as it began investigating reports of inequitable employment practices, Sellstrom said.
The trial court balked, saying the state’s judiciary isn’t subject to the public records law, but would consider the request, the SJC opinion said.
Six months later, the committee sued for the documents, Sellstrom said. The day after the lawsuit was filed, the judiciary began releasing records, but insisted that it was doing so voluntarily and not because it was required under the public records law, the committee said.
Those documents revealed a lack of diversity among court officers, according to Sellstrom. In particular, the group found that less than 7 percent of court officers are women of color. At the management level, about 4 percent are women of color, the committee said.
The US attorney’s office in Boston has launched an investigation into potential civil rights violations in the register’s office at Suffolk Probate and Family Court, which is part of the trial court. A spokeswoman for the trial court said the inquiry is limited to that office and does not extend to the agency as a whole.
Despite receiving the documents, the committee pressed ahead with its lawsuit. The justices concluded, however, that the trial court had ended the dispute by providing the records.
“The fact that the Lawyers’ Committee has also sought a declaratory judgment concerning the applicability of the public records law to the respondents does not alter the outcome as there is no longer any actual controversy,” the court wrote.
The spokeswoman said the SJC decision speaks for itself.
Massachusetts is the only state in the nation where the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government claim to be exempt from the public records law. As part of an overhaul of the law signed last year by Governor Charlie Baker, a legislative commission has been tasked with examining whether that should change.
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