The American Bar Association has the opportunity this month to kill an “ill-considered recommendation” that public access to court records be closed in criminal cases that don't result in convictions, editorializes the Columbus Dispatch. The intent is to help arrested people re-enter society. However, the paper says the idea is impractical and would do more harm than good: “The stigma of being accused of a crime is ameliorated by publicizing favorable outcomes for defendants, not by shielding the records of their ordeal.”
The Founding Fathers, says the Dispatch, knew that keeping courts open is an effective check on the power of the government to railroad some defendants and unfairly favor others. How would sealing court records help people who have gone through the ordeal of prosecution? If the case generated notoriety, the public already is aware of the accusations. In such cases, pre-trial records already are in the hands of news organizations. Two groups, Criminal Justice Journalists and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, challenged the proposal. They and others wonder: How can news operations be barred from using official records they already have? Blocking access to files would inhibit efforts to investigate the performance of prosecutors and judges and to uncover patterns of bias. The National Conference of Editorial Writers says that the recommendation, if approved by the ABA, would provide an incentive for “judges to write new rules and legislatures to write new laws” restricting access to court records.