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040518-nws-public-access

North Dakota district court records are publicly available at courthouse terminals, such as at the Burleigh County Courthouse in Bismarck.

Data mining, identity thieves, online stalking.

These are all concerns in comments received by North Dakota Supreme Court Clerk Penny Miller regarding a proposal to amend Administrative Rule 41, which governs access to the state's court records.

In March, the Court Services Administration Committee, chaired by Justice Jon Jensen, proposed remote and electronic access to eliminate the barrier of physical access at a courthouse — though many counties in North Dakota do email court records, despite no requirement to do so.

Since the comment period opened in late March, three individuals have submitted remarks —largely all concerns related to what remote, public access could bring. 

Southeast District Judge Brad Cruff described his "grave concerns" that court documents containing birthdays, Social Security numbers and financial information "are a potential gold mine for identity thieves."

Lisbon attorney Lyle Thomason wrote that expanding access would invite online snooping and stalking.

"For example, information that is put into an affidavit and filed with the court is not public information; it is private information that is provided to the court for a specific purpose and that is to inform the court as to the specific facts of a case," Thomason wrote.

"It is not information that should be printed off and passed around from table to table at the bar and then in the morning left at the local coffee shop so everybody in town can know about a person's troubles and then delivered to the local paper for an article about something of public concern."

Thomason also asked the court to consider some limitations on remote or anonymous access to court records, such as charging a fee per download of a record.

Another commenter, Jerry Ustanko, said some court filings, such as bankruptcy, marital matters and minor crimes, aren't of journalistic interest.

"We shouldn't be paying money to a local paper to publish these life's problems or encourage our neighbors to data mine our personal business," he wrote.

He also recommended the court prioritize adding judges over expanding access to court records, given state budgets.

"This is one issue the courts don't need to fund," Ustanko wrote.

Miller said the North Dakota Supreme Court will meet after Friday to discuss the proposal. She also said June is a busy month with 39 cases submitted for argument and decision, as well as other scheduled meetings.

The public comment period for AR 41 ends Friday. Comments must be emailed to Miller.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Capitol Reporter