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Privacy and Court Records

Online Access and the Loss of Practical Obscurity

Court records present a conundrum for privacy advocates. Public access to the courts has long been a fundamental tenant of American democracy, helping to ensure that our system of justice functions fairly and that citizens can observe the actions of their government. Yet court records contain an astonishing amount of private and sensitive information, ranging from social security numbers to the names of sexual assault victims. Until recently, the privacy harms that attended the public disclosure of court records were generally regarded as insignificant because court files were difficult to search and access. But this “practical obscurity” is rapidly disappearing as the courts move from the paper-based world of the twentieth century to an interconnected, electronic world where physical and temporal barriers to information are eroding.

These changes are prompting courts—and increasingly, legislatures—to reexamine public access to court records. Although this reexamination can be beneficial, a number of courts are abandoning the careful balancing of interests that has traditionally guided judges in access disputes and instead are excluding whole categories of information, documents, and cases from public access. This approach, while superficially appealing, is contrary to established First Amendment principles that require case-specific analysis before access can be restricted and is putting at risk the public’s ability to observe the functioning of the courts and justice system.

This article pushes back against the categorical exclusion of information in court records. In doing so, it makes three core claims. First, the First Amendment provides a qualified right of public access to all court records that are material to a court’s exercise of its adjudicatory power. Second, before a court can restrict public access, it must engage in a case-specific evaluation of the privacy and public access interests at stake. Third, per se categorical restrictions on public access are not permissible.

These conclusions do not leave the courts powerless to protect privacy, as some scholars assert. We must discard the notion that the protection of privacy is exclusively the job of judges and court staff. Instead, we need to shift the responsibility for protecting privacy to lawyers and litigants, who should not be permitted to include highly sensitive information in court files if it is not relevant to the case. Of course, we cannot eliminate all private and sensitive information from court records, but as long as courts continue to provide physical access to their records, the First Amendment does not preclude court administrators from managing electronic access in order to retain some of the beneficial aspects of practical obscurity. By minimizing the inclusion of unnecessary personal information in court files and by limiting the extent of electronic access to certain types of highly sensitive information, we can protect privacy while at the same time ensuring transparency and public accountability.

The full text of this Article is available to download as a PDF.