Public court files need to remain public

A new rule in state court will require records to be deemed nonpublic after they’re bound over to circuit court.

Like some kind of game of switcheroo with felony files, the records will be closed in district court on bind-over to circuit court, then closed in circuit if the case is remanded back to district.

The Michigan Supreme Court amended the rules at the behest of the State Court Administrator’s Office to restrict access to public records. This change will ostensibly create a centralized sort of “one-stop shopping” for court records, they say.

We think not.

Fundamentally, what this change really means is that district court – often called “the people’s court”– will no longer provide the people with access to the records of more serious felony cases after those cases are bound over to circuit court.

Is there some sort of contagious thinking going on that spread from the Michigan State Police, who say their refusal to release names of victims of crashes is a service to the public? Now we have the state court administrator saying this change in handling court files will make it easier for the public to obtain them.

The underlying reason for amending this particular court rule was based on the expungement package put in place several years ago. Once convictions were set aside, the court records connected to those cases were supposed to be made nonpublic. The effort to make expungement cases nonpublic led to the idea that all case filings – even ones not affected by expungement – could be centralized.

Yet these rule changes we’re identifying seem to be chip, chip, chipping away at what was once considered part of the public purview.

In response to our objection about this change, court officials can say, “On the contrary, the file is still public, we’re just moving it to a different venue.” But what they fail to see is that they are removing a key access point and adding unnecessary complexity to a system that will only serve to discourage public engagement in the process.

That’s just what our democracy doesn’t need right now. Some people are intimidated by courts, the process and protocol. Some who ask for these documents may be victims of crimes. So, when they request files at the district court, they will be told those particular records are no longer public and, if they want to see them, they will have to go elsewhere.

We won’t even try to speculate about the impact this operational change will have on clerks or the handling of the files themselves.

Justice David Viviano, who disagreed with this amendment, said he opposed it “because it impedes access to court records and imposes an unnecessary burden on court clerks and staff. The new requirements will make it more difficult to obtain court records that have always been accessible to the public up until now. This Court has a duty to ensure that court records are easily accessible by members of the public.”

“For many Michiganders,” Viviano said, “local district or municipal courts may be the easiest place to access a court record. … I see no good reason to force individuals wishing to access information about a felony case to obtain that information from the circuit court. If the case is public and the local court has the relevant records or information sought, the public should have a right to access it at that court.”

He’s got that right: These proceedings in “the people’s court” should be accessible to the people.

Here’s another part of the court’s rule change that will add to the difficulty: If that case in circuit court is remanded back to district court, then those records in the circuit court will become nonpublic. This will only serve to complicate access to files even further and, invariably, make more work for the clerks who have to keep tabs on them.

These changes were adopted by a majority of the state Supreme Court earlier this month and they’re supposed to take effect July 2.

Is this a change that will improve court operations and make them more accessible to people?

We think not.

But those officials who approved it appeared to think not at all.

— Traverse City Record Eagle


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