Coalition Urges Appeals Court to Open Full Online Access to Records
Fritz Mulhauser | April 13, 2021
With court papers now required to be filed electronically in both D.C. courts, and large majorities of people everywhere using the internet according to data from the Pew Research Center, the D.C. Court of Appeals is hearing from the public about online access to its files. At present only the docket—a list of events in a case—and some opinions are available online (no filings).
The court is the “supreme court” for the District. It handles challenges to decisions of all kinds of the Superior Court (which opened most records four years ago). It also hears attorney discipline matters and appeals from decisions of the Office of Administrative Hearings on cases against D.C. agencies. It issues about 1,500 rulings a year.
The Open Government Coalition filed its enthusiastic endorsement of this step in a comment Monday (12), citing the court’s own words 33 years ago that
“public scrutiny can serve to inform the public about the true nature of judicial proceedings, and public knowledge of the courts is essential to democratic government because it is essential to rational criticism and reform of the justice system.”Mokhiber v. Davis, 537 A.2d 1100, 1110 (D.C. 1988).
The Coalition also recommended
- stronger rules to keep sensitive information out of court papers, and
- design of a user-friendly system based on public input.
The request for comment gave no details of the court’s plans or timeline for the new access. Most courts have moved from paper to digital record systems using case management technology that can readily add public access, though new procedures can take time to develop to harmonize many interests involved.
Supreme Court filings are available free to all online. A much-criticized paywall sheltering records of all other federal courts in the PACER system is under court and congressional scrutiny. Online access is more and more common in state courts as well, according to a 2017 report on a national survey done for the court by the D.C.-based Council for Court Excellence.