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Privacy Rules for Online Court Records

Earlier this week, the Court Technology Bulletin posted a blog about the Florida Supreme Court’s frustration over how long it’s been taking to come up with privacy rules for online court records. The court created a Committee on Privacy and Court Records in 2003, but the committee has only “proposed rules for excluding personal information such as social security and credit card numbers from court files if not required to resolve or manage cases.” Criminal and traffic cases would be exempt from these rules because they have their own separate committees working on proposed rules, though neither committees have submitted recommendations as of yet. With still many question before the committee up for debate, Justice Barbara Pariente asked committee members to “get on the stick and get the rest done.”  

Florida’s frustration with the issue made me curious as to what other courts are doing. Montana seems to have their act together. The Montana Supreme Court enacted Court Rules for Privacy and Public Access to Court Records in Montana in 2008 (only three years after a commission was set up). Their rules are governed by the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy, both of which are guaranteed in their constitution. The rules prohibit public access to “sensitive” personal information. Sensitive information includes complete social security numbers, complete financial account numbers, full names of minor children (unless required by state law), and full birth dates of any person. (See Rules Section 4.5 ). Parties can also request that other information not be made available to the public, though there’s little guarantee the court will rule in their favor. (See Rules Section 4.6).  

Litigants are warned that “all information that you file with a court is public information” which anyone can view and share. So they shouldn’t put sensitive personal information not required by law in a court document. It’s up to litigants to protect their privacy. If they put such information on court documents, court officials aren’t going to make sure it’s redacted before making it available to the public. (See warning.) 

On the federal side, in 2007 the Federal Rules of Appellate, Bankruptcy, Civil, and Criminal Procedure that implement the E-Government Act of 2002 became effective. It required the same type of sensitive information mentioned in Montana’s rule to be redacted from court documents, with addition of home addresses in criminal cases. (See http://www.privacy.uscourts.gov/.)

With such easy access to information these days, it’s good to know some steps are being taken to protect individual privacy. Let’s hope Florida “gets on the stick” to protect their citizens soon.

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