Supreme Court Must Be a Defender of Public Records

Editorial from the Twin Falls Times

Effective July 1, the Idaho Supreme Court adopted a new court rule that seals an entire class of public records in the name of protecting children. On the surface, who could argue with that?

Recent changes to Idaho Court Administrative Rule (“ICAR”) 32 exempt from public disclosure all court cases involving child custody, child support and paternity.

Good intentions aside, the rule change is written with broad enough brush strokes to be dangerous. It’s time for the Idaho Supreme Court to revisit and reject the rule change.

One of the more important tenets of our society is an open government. Want to know what pollutants exist in your tap water? The city is obligated to tell you. Imagine if that weren’t the case, if someone could keep important information from you.

A new Idaho court rule threatens to do just that. It presumes to seal an entire classification of court cases from the public eye.

The rule, Idaho Court Administrative Rule 32(a), was implemented with good intention, namely to protect children. It orders all child custody, child support and paternity cases automatically sealed, meaning you would have to convince a judge before you could access them. That’s unnecessary. Court rules already require that Social Security numbers, financial accounts and names of minors be redacted from the record, essentially rendering ICAR 32(a) moot.

Then why implement the rule? One reason given was that court clerks complained the redactions were making them work more. Our sympathies, but they were hired to be stewards of our records, not the gatekeepers. We’re sure a little extra effort to protect minors is worth it.

The potential pitfalls of sealing records are many. For starters, judges could act with impunity. Without oversight from the community, judges would be free to act as they please in all cases concerning a child’s well-being.

The rule, to date, has been poorly executed. Already it has been used to seal away divorce records where the couple has children. That may seem like a private matter, but let’s say someone owes you money. If that person were to receive a large divorce settlement, but has a child, you would have no way of knowing without going before a judge.

In a letter of protest to the Idaho Supreme Court dated Nov. 16, 2012, Debora K. Kristensen and Betsy Z. Russell wrote, “Problems already are surfacing around the state with reporters and members of the public being denied access to files in cases that previously were open. … Since the enactment of this law, the provisions of ICAR 32 have been erroneously applied to cases filed before the rule’s effective date and to cases not even in the categories mentioned in the rule. For example, in a Kootenai County civil case filed over management of a trust fund for crime survivor Shasta Groene, Steve Groene vs. Brandy Hoagland, Judge Lansing Haynes told a reporter the case was sealed entirely for a month under the new rule while it was gone through for redaction (it later was unsealed with redactions). The rule has caused confusion and denials of public records throughout our state.”

ICAR 32(a) is a dramatic shift for Idaho. Rather than being custodians of our legal records, the rule change turns judges and clerks into jailors, allowing us to visit our locked-up records only when they see fit. We encourage the Idaho Supreme Court to reconsider the rule, to welcome oversight of court decisions. We encourage them to do everything they can to ensure an open government.

Editorial from the Twin Falls Times

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