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Progress Towards Online Access to Records at D.C. Court of Appeals

Fritz Mulhauser | July 20, 2021 | Last modified: July 28, 2021

The District’s high court is taking steps to allow public online access to case documents, according to a recent notice. It announces the Court of Appeals has “decided to adopt a pilot project” that will open files in some civil cases.

The notice includes only an initial step, ordering personal information out of all court filings beginning August 1. Necessary but private facts may be in a sealed version. The court adopts a list of prohibited details already in a Superior Court rule.

Until now, online access has been limited to the docket or list of events in each case and some final opinions. Enlarged access will include filings such as motions and briefs.

D.C. Superior Court broadened online access to most of the record in 2016. To help the Court of Appeals consider the same step, the Council for Court Excellence in 2017 reported its survey done for then-Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington showing courts nationwide were doing the same. The court experimented for two months in 2020 posting a week in advance electronic copies of briefs for some cases scheduled for oral argument.

After a notice in February that the Court of Appeals was “exploring” how best to put records online and seeking comment, the court received dozens of statements endorsing the step. The new notice says those were “very helpful.”

The Open Government Coalition’s comment recalled for the court its own words in a 1988 opinion, 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 June notice gives no details of key features contributing to overall usefulness of the system to a wide range of users, including

  • whether registration or fees will be required (such as in the federal courts’ PACER system though not in Superior Court);
  • the extent of search capability; and
  • treatment of bulk requests.

If the design is still in progress, the notice did not mention any plans for involving others outside the court. The CCE study found courts elsewhere rated user advisory groups essential and commenters here also asked to be consulted.

The new online access will likely be limited to new cases; Superior Court did the same. Past cases filed on paper would be costly to scan into digital form and to scrub confidential details. The older court records remain public but can be read only at the courthouse – a form of privacy protection known as “practical obscurity” because only a hardy few will shoulder the burden.   

Court statistics show about 1,400 new appeals of all kinds each year, though only half as many in pandemic year 2020 as Superior Court case flow slowed dramatically. The notice says the open records pilot project will include 13 case types: civil I, general and other civil; collections; contracts; landlord and tenant; liens; malpractice; merit personnel; property and real property; torts; and vehicle cases. Not included at this time are criminal, probate, family, tax, and lawyer discipline cases.

A staff member in the clerk’s office told the Coalition last week (15) that tests of the new online access features showed some remaining problems, so no launch date has been set. D.C. Court of Appeals public notices are posted here.