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040518-nws-public-access

A proposal before the North Dakota Supreme Court would expand public access to state court records. 

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE MCCLEARY, TRIBUNE

The state Supreme Court has received a proposal that will provide the public with easier access to court records. Hopefully, the justices will sign off on the idea.

The Court Services Administration Committee has suggested changes to administrative rules 19 and 41.

The recommendations for rule 19 involve "mechanical changes" for document retention. However, the proposed changes in rule 41 are what should interest the public. At a time in the state when there have been efforts to make access to open records and open meetings more difficult, the rule 41 proposal is refreshing.

Supreme Court Justices Jon Jensen and Daniel Crothers both chaired the committee reviewing the rules. The work took more than two years.

Under the proposed change in rule 41, the public wouldn’t have to go to a courthouse to access court records. Instead, they would be able to remotely access records with a computer or another device. Not all records would be available to the public, which is now the case.

Juvenile files, adoption records and domestic violence documents are some that would be and are protected. In many instances where a search of public records is necessary you wouldn’t have to leave the office or your home. At present, Burleigh and Morton counties and Mandan's municipal court email court records while Bismarck's municipal court requires you to come to court and fill out a form. There’s also a $1 per page charge for printed copies of records. Not all counties in the state have access like Burleigh and Morton.

In this digital age it makes sense to have access to records. It saves the public time and it reduces the load on courthouse workers.

It’s going to take time before a final decision is made on the two rules. The Supreme Court is taking written comments on the changes until June 1. Then the justices will consider the proposals and will decide whether to adopt, amend, reject or do something else with the proposals. There’s no timeframe for a decision.

If the changes in rule 41 are adopted it will take some funding to implement them. Those funds will have to be requested from the 2019 Legislature and that outcome is uncertain in these tight economic times.

The Court Services Administration Committee should be lauded for its work. It can be a tedious process reviewing legal issues and the committee put a lot of time into its work. The Tribune Editorial Board believes the changes in rule 41 make sense and should be adopted. This isn’t intended to make it easier for someone to do blanket searches to find something embarrassing on a neighbor or public official. As noted earlier, some records aren’t accessible now and wouldn’t be in the future.

The changes would make access to records simpler and faster. The changes would not make records available that aren't open to the public at present. The Supreme Court should adopt the changes.

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