It’s been nearly 20 years since Massachusetts embarked on a technological upgrade to modernize the court systems. Each county in the Commonwealth, one by one, has been converting to a new electronic filing system called MassCourts.org. But this long-overdue shift to new technology has had a downside: The media and the public have been blocked from accessing basic information for many cases. The Massachusetts court system must correct this lapse; blocking the public and the press from retrieving docket information deprives Massachusetts citizens of a fundamental right. The advent of new technology for the court records system should promote wider records transparency, not limit it.
As the courts have slowly migrated to the new technology platform, only attorneys have been granted access. Thus, any attorney with a Board of Bar Overseers number can access all records online, setting up a special class of access. Historically, any journalist could obtain a user name and password from the Superior Court administrative office to review docket information and records via ma-trialcourts.org. The shift to the new website represents a departure from Massachusetts public court records traditions and directly contradicts longstanding administrative rules.
The Trial Court assembled a committee to draft new policies for access, and has been meeting behind closed doors since late 2013 to determine what information can be made available online. The situation prompted several media groups and organizations — including the New England First Amendment Coalition, the New England Press Association, and The Boston Globe — to formally oppose the deliberate blocking of online access to some statewide court records. In a letter to the Public Access to Court Records Committee dated earlier this month, First Amendment attorney Robert Bertsche writes on behalf of the group: “Historically, public access to court records has not been restricted to any particular class of persons. . . . Even if the committee is studying other issues relating to public access to the electronic court record,” he says, the Superior Court must “restore the news media’s access to docket information, thus preserving the status quo as it existed prior to the change.”
In a statement, the Trial Court maintains that all public court records are available for public viewing in clerk’s and register’s offices at courthouses all over the state; but that doesn’t necessarily apply to docket information stored in the court computer system, and it’s unclear whether all filings made electronically will be publicly available.
That’s why the coalition of media groups wants a seat at the table as the Trial Court Committee on Public Access to Court Records deliberates, and asks that its meetings be open to the public. In the meantime, and as the new rules are debated, the media and the public should be granted access to all court records on MassCourts.org. It’s undemocratic and counter to the public interest to limit court records to a select few.