Minnesota is debating how much of the sensitive information in court files should be posted on the Internet. The Minneapolis Star Tribune notes that court records can contain items like a divorce seeker’s accusing a spouse of clandestine love affairs and demanding half of the spouse’s worth, listing bank-account balances. Prosecutors might roll out detailed accusations against a man they suspect beats his girlfriend. An angry employee might sue, accusing a supervisor and the business of sexual harassment.
Most of it can be found by going to the courthouse and requesting a file. A Minnesota Supreme Court advisory committee will seek public comment on what kinds of court records should be posted on the Web.
The Star Tribune poses some questions: How important is it for landlords, employers or youth-group leaders looking for volunteers to have easy access to the information to check someone’s background? Should someone huddled over a home computer at 3 a.m. be able to see it all? Should courts put criminal charges online, or should they wait until someone is found guilty?
“There are no simple answers here,” said Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson, who chairs the committee. “It’s mind boggling.” The committee will make final recommendations to the state Supreme Court.
The committee is using what it calls a “go-slow approach.” Members have agreed to keep some data, such as Social Security numbers, off the Web because the information might be used to commit identity theft. They may recommend that entire documents, such as divorce records and lawsuits, be kept off the Internet and that only overview information, such as court calendars and court-produced orders, go online.
Robert Sykora, a state public defender and committee member, argues against putting even calendars on the Web, saying it’s unfair to defendants — many of whom are poor or might have been caught in racial profiling — to publish their names until they are proved guilty.
Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, a committee member, believes people are sometimes too quick to push for privacy on the basis of extreme scenarios. In general, he argued, the community is better off being able to find out about and hold people accountable for their behavior. “In the whole privacy debate, the needs, rights and interest of the community just too often get forgotten,” he said.
In North Carolina, the court system contracted to sell basic criminal-and civil-case data to companies that then sell the records to potential employers, landlords and others looking for background checks. It seemed like a beneficial arrangement, with fewer people clogging the courthouses and the data-harvesting companies contributing to the state’s tax base, said Cliff Layman, chief information officer at the administrative office of the courts there.
Other states make varying amounts of information available electronically. In Wisconsin, officials started providing information online publicly in early 1999, said Jean Bousquet, chief information officer for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A committee favored openness. Dismissed restraining orders remain online with a “dismissed” showing prominently in the record, she said. The records stay on for a minimum of 10 years.