Online Access to D.C. Trial Court Records May Be Closer With Appointment of Chief Judge Robert Morin
dcogcadmin | June 7, 2016
UPDATE 6/18/16 — The D.C. Judicial Nominations Commission on Thursday (16) announced that after interviews, background checks and considering over 700 evaluations and letters from individuals and organizations, it has designated Associate Judge Robert Morin as the next Chief Judge of the D.C. Superior Court, the trial court for the District. With Judge Morin’s knowledge of technology gained as chair of the court’s IT Committee, and his comments at the candidates’ forum in support of the general principle of public online access to the court records, that long-awaited development may be nearer to becoming reality. Morin will assume the office October 1.
With technical barriers soon to be cleared away, all that remains is working out access policies for the public to get court records online just as easily as at the courthouse.
This was the consensus in remarks Monday (6) at a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Council for Court Excellence at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law featuring four judges under consideration to be the next chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court—Judith Bartnoff, Erik Christian, Robert Morin and Hiram Puig-Lugo.
The fifth candidate, current chief judge Lee Satterfield, did not attend the forum and did not address the question in his prepared statement read to the audience.
The next chief judge will lead the District of Columbia’s busy trial court where over 80 associate and magistrate judges hear tens of thousands of cases a year involving criminal and civil law in a complex of downtown courthouses at Judiciary Square. The court also handles specialized cases in family, landlord-and-tenant, domestic violence, probate, tax, drug, mental health, housing conditions, and traffic courts.
The courts’ records have been electronic for years but access is still only by viewing them on terminals in the main courthouse, where printing a page costs 50 cents.
Judge Robert Morin, a candidate and chair of the court’s IT committee, told the audience that a “public access update” will be completed by the year’s end by the court’s software contractor, leaving “no technical barrier.”
The federal judicial branch provides public online access to full case records in trial, bankruptcy and appeals courts, through a congressionally-mandated system for Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER). Access is not entirely open; controversial rules (now under court challenge) require that users must register and pay 10 cents per page viewed.
The D.C. Court of Appeals is planning an electronic filing and record-keeping system, tentatively set to begin operation later this year. Public access details remain to be decided.
Several of the chief judge candidates noted that “best practice” in trial courts nationwide moving in this direction includes steps to assure that private details, sensitive law enforcement information, and perhaps some entire types of cases (for example, criminal cases where no prosecution or conviction resulted from an arrest), are sealed from public view. How to do that efficiently is a challenge, though Morin noted that software innovations may make the task of shielding sensitive details easier in the near future..
The candidates said such questions will be addressed in a period of policy development they hoped would be spurred by whoever is the next chief judge, so that the well-regarded D.C. courts can remain in the forefront of developments to serve the 21st century public.
Updated to indicate the next chief judge has been chosen.