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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.

Remote access to North Dakota court records is a bit closer to becoming a reality. 

The state Supreme Court returned a proposal to rewrite Administrative Rule 41 — which governs public access to court records — to the Court Services Administration Committee to consider public comments received on the draft. The committee met Jan. 18 to review the comments. 

If approved, the proposal would expand access to North Dakota court documents to include remote and electronic means, acting on national legal groups' best practice recommendations to remove barriers to public access, such as commuting to a courthouse.

Most courts in North Dakota maintain a public access computer for documents and will email digital copies of requested records, despite no requirement to do so. North Dakota's counties operate within a unified state system of judicial districts.

The state Supreme Court received the long considered proposal in March, with public comments in the months after. The dozen or so comments mostly expressed concerns for privacy and protecting citizens' information.

North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Jon Jensen chairs the Court Services Administration Committee and said the proposal will see some amendments, but no "significant, substantive changes."

A Supreme Court staff attorney is now amending the proposal for the changes, Jensen added.

The Supreme Court could receive the amended proposal for consideration by Thursday, Jensen said. Its decision on the proposal could come within 30 days. Further public commenting isn't likely.

North Dakota Supreme Court Clerk Penny Miller previously said the court may adopt, amend, reject or do "any number of things" to the proposal.

Jack McDonald, legal counsel for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, considers the proposal to be "a good thing for public information." 

"So if the people want to actually find out how the courts work, they can look," McDonald said. "They can go in and see the documents. I think it's opening up the process, and I think nothing but good will come of that." 

Jensen said the court will likely have to consider the degree of demand for access and increasing bandwidth to accommodate users. Court information technology staff would have to vet those issues. 

The federal court system operates the Public Access to Court Electronic Records service, which charges 10 cents per page to view court documents online. Jensen said the committee has so far rejected the idea of pay-per-view court records.

"They're public records," he said. 

Right now, the public may view the docket listing of state criminal, civil and other types of cases, but must request documents therein. State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said remote access wouldn't require a new system, but would need "modifications." 

"A big piece of that would be deciding exactly what documents we want out there and what we don't want out there," said Holewa, pointing to family case affidavits containing myriad allegations.

"Right now, they're public documents, but if you want them you have to go a courthouse. Physically show up and look at them."  

Expanding access to state court documents could be an expenditure for the 2021 legislative session, Holewa added — but the court could decide to "phase in" remote access.

"It's a big change," Jensen said.

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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