The Other Side
of the Story

Michael F. Broderick

Monday, August 20, 2001

Judiciary must be
cautious about putting
court records online

The Star-Bulletin's Aug. 12 analysis "Caught in the Web," states that the Hawaii state judiciary has "adopted a policy limiting information accessible in cyberspace" and leaves the impression that the judiciary has not seen fit to hear from the public before implementing its policy. This is not the case.

The Hawaii judiciary has not finalized a formal policy on electronic access to court records. Rather, given the substantial privacy issues involved, we are exploring the appropriate levels of public access to electronic databases of court records containing personal information before implementing such a policy.

Earlier this year, I wrote to the judiciary's senior management team: "A task force will be formed to study court records and develop a formal policy identifying which records and information be (publicly and electronically) accessible. In the interim, personal identifiers will not be electronically accessible through our public terminals or on the internet."

Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation in Denver, states, "Instant online access to court records raises monumental privacy issues for U.S. citizens."

Because electronic court data may be accessed and manipulated far more easily than information stored on paper, questions arise as to whether traditional rules and practices, originally designed to provide public access to paper records, should also apply to electronic court information.

Federal and state courts are grappling with issues of privacy and electronic access to public court records. The Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators are developing recom- mended policies and procedures for state courts to address issues of privacy and public access to court records.

California courts have issued special rules for electronic access to records, including restrictions on electronic access to cases involving family law, child support, juvenile law, mental health, probate, criminal law, or pubic offenses.

While the state judiciary understands the benefits to the public and the media of having technologically improved access to court records, we must strike a balance between access and privacy when developing our policy for disseminating potentially invasive information.

The judiciary's interim measure was designed to protect privacy, avoid identity theft and promote the safety of Hawaii's citizens.

Our task force is reviewing policies from other jurisdictions and exploring options for disseminating information. We intend to invite public comment on our proposed policy once it has been developed.

Until we formulate a permanent policy, however, we have decided to "err on the side of caution" by redacting personal information (i.e., Social Security numbers, home addresses, home telephone numbers and dates of birth) from our public terminals and the Internet. We believe this is a prudent course of action given the sensitivity of the information involved.

The Hawaii state judiciary recognizes the complexity of these issues, the need to seek public input and the goal of striking a balance between the critical, but often competing interests of privacy and public access. We intend to do so.

Michael F. Broderick is the
administrative director of Hawaii's courts.

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