New Mexico Supreme Court Policy Would Make Court Records Available Online

The policy raised concerns because it gives remote access to unredacted court records — which can contain Social Security numbers and other personal information — to media.

by Justin Horwath, The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) / December 9, 2016

(TNS) -- A New Mexico Supreme Court-appointed subcommittee on Thursday passed a proposal that would give media, attorneys, welfare workers and others online access to court records.

The proposed policy drew both warnings over potential privacy violations and pleas to ease access to such records.

Under the proposal, attorneys, certain criminal justice workers, people representing themselves in civil court and the press would qualify to access unredacted court records through a secured online system.

The proposed policy now goes to the Judicial Information System Council, another Supreme Court-appointed group, in its Dec. 15 meeting, said Barry Massey, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts. If the policy passes that group next week, it could then go to state Supreme Court justices for approval during a Jan. 4 conference.

The policy raised concerns because it gives remote access to unredacted court records — which can contain Social Security numbers and other personal information — to media. But Massey noted that’s no different from the current policy of state District Courts allowing any member of the public to view unredacted court records by requesting them at the courthouse. Juvenile records and orders of protection in domestic violence cases would remain protected from disclosure.

Under the proposed policy, those interested in such online access would have to apply to the Judicial Information Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts for login information and credentials.

The proposal defines press as “any person who regularly gathers, prepares, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports or publishes news or information about matters of public interest in any medium and who successfully applies to participate in online access and agrees to comply with all court rules.”

The proposal says that people “who qualify for online access to unredacted court records must agree not to publish confidential information or protected personal identifier information as set forth in proposed amendments to the Judiciary’s rules of procedure governing the public inspection and sealing of court records.”

The Online Access Subcommittee on Thursday heard comments from the public on the proposal.

Martin Salazar, publisher of The Las Vegas Optic, told subcommittee members that the policy should give media outlets access to unredacted versions of the court records because such information helps reporters distinguish “one Martin Salazar from another Martin Salazar.”

Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, suggested the courts enter into agreements with media outlets that would allow the state to revoke access to the online system if personal information were misused.

But Tom Horan, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Press Association, said that would require the state to decide how a media outlet had violated such agreements.

The Administrative Office of the Courts received about 40 written comments from lawyers, journalists, court staff, private investigators, law professors and others.

Journalists from small news organizations urged officials to accept the change in rules, bemoaning what they described as lengthy treks from the offices of rural newspapers to faraway courthouses to gather copies of legal documents.

Representatives from some of the state’s biggest news organizations also submitted letters backing the change.

“The more access that the media has to public court records, the better it can inform the public,” lawyer Gregory P. Williams wrote on behalf of the Albuquerque Journal and KOAT-TV.

But Albuquerque lawyer Lori Millet argued that the media should not be trusted with easier access to what are already public court records.

“The press cannot be relied upon to accurately report on legal proceedings and the risk of misinterpretation of the contents in the online court records if allowed more access to court records is very high. That does not help anyone,” Millet wrote.

The state court agency also is working to make redacted versions of court records available online to all members of the public.

Massey said the Administrative Office of the Courts will ask lawmakers in the next legislative session for $1.3 million to purchase software able to automatically redact personal identifying information from court records before they’re published. Officials would use the software to redact both incoming court documents as well as retroactively redact court documents already on file.

Massey acknowledged the appropriation request will be tough to get through the Legislature in the upcoming 60-day session that begins in January. State courts, like all state agencies, are attempting to trim their budgets amid an estimated $69 million deficit.

“Any kind of appropriation is going to be a challenge right now,” Massey said.

©2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.