Access v. Privacy: Should judges' records be available?

With judges' personal information available online, some question whether their right to security might override the public's right to access information.

by / July 7, 2006
What happens when personal safety and privacy collide with the public's right to know?

Ask the political leaders of Beaver County, Pa., who wrestled with the question this spring and decided that when it comes to judges' homes addresses, the citizenry has a right to share in that information.

"We are trying to disseminate this information as much as we can," said county solicitor Myron Sainovich, whose efforts helped ensure that judges' addresses could be easily found in county land records online.

The flap started when Judge Robert Kunselman ordered that judges' names be taken off the assessor's online property search, public-access terminals and a monthly listing of properties issued on CD. He posed it as a simple measure to help keep judges safe.

"Judges are always receiving threats," he said.

Sometimes those threats are realized. In 2005, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Judge Joan Lefkow, an Illinois judge whose mother and husband were killed by a former litigant. Lefkow's home address had been posted on the Internet by a member of a white supremacist group, though the group was not affiliated with the murder.

Also in 2005, a defendant on trial for rape in Atlanta shot the judge, court reporter and two deputies, leaving three dead and one injured.

Given such a precedent of violence against judges, Kunselman said, there is no reason to make judges' records readily available and every reason to apply special safeguards.

In his judicial order, Kunselman did not demand that judges' addresses be obscured entirely, just that they be taken out of the electronic realm.

"The obligation of government to make its records available to the public is limited to making the original records available," he said. "You have to come into the courthouse to look at them. The possibility of putting them online is discretionary. It's not mandatory. You have to give access to the citizens of Beaver County, not the citizens of the world."

However, Kunselman might have stepped on some political toes in the course of making his case. Rather than going through the Beaver County Commission, he issued a judicial order to remove the name-search function from the land records.

Those who oppose the order point to a similar recent case in which Allegheny County similarly removed 100 property records -- all federal, state and county judges -- from its online files. But that change came in response to a request from Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose.

Sainovich said Kunselman had no legal authority to issue a unilateral order. Adding fuel to the jurisdictional fire, Kunselman made the unfortunate remark of, "I'm my own authority as far as I'm concerned. If they want to do something about it, they can do something" as reported in the Beaver County Times.

Sainovich did something. He filed an appeal in Commonwealth Court -- an intermediate appellate court -- and eventually the judge backed down.

The judge still insists his order was reasonable, since it would have imposed only minimal limits on public access.

It would not have stripped judges' names entirely from the record. Rather, Kunselman's idea was to disable the name search function, thus making it impossible to find a judge's property simply by looking up his or her name. A legitimate search by property address would still reveal the judge as owner of a given property.

Not good enough, said Sainovich, who argued online records must be as complete as possible. "There are people who maybe can't make it to the courthouse during regular business hours. There are people who may have disabilities who may not be able to make it here at all," he said.

Moreover, Sainovich said the need for public access ought to override what he sees as a slight threat to the judiciary.

"From my experience as a criminal lawyer for 22 years, they are not going to [stalk a judge by looking up an address]," he said. "They are going to wait for you to outside of the building and follow you home. They are not going to go on the county assessor's Web site to get that information."

Kunselman said while his order did not survive, the flap in Beaver County should serve as a warning to other jurisdictions trying to negotiate the intersection of technology and judicial safety.

"It's not just a Beaver County problem," he said. "More and more counties are putting their public records on the Internet. I think the state needs to establish a policy as to just what information needs to be available."
Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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