Thurston County sent out a press release recently that seems to be pointing in the right direction. Actually nothing at all though:
“Implementation of this integrated document management system will provide easy access to court documents, the ability to store documents locally and is cost effective to maintain. This system will benefit all parties involved.” said Enlow.
You know, except the public.
What Enlow is talking about here is an internal document and work management system between the various threads of the local legal system. Judges, bureaucrats and the clerk being all on the same, updated system. But, this — as far as I can tell — is an inward facing system. It doesn’t do anything to provide public access to records within the court system.
And (I note in a very self referential manner) is a problem in Washington State.
We have strong laws protecting public access to public records in this state. Except when it comes to records in our courts. There is a clear common law (legal tradition) in that court records are public, but we’re charge exorbitant prices for court filings. In one case, I could’ve paid $30 for a 16 page document for a case concerning a ballot initiative.
The reason behind this paywall is a state law amended ten years ago that allow county clerks to charge a steep price for digital public records, well beyond the costs allowed by our other state public records laws.
Not every county collects these fees. Whatcom County stands out as a local government that allows free access to its citizens. According to the Whatcom County clerk, Dave Reynolds, this both lowers costs to his staff, but also provides free access (yeah!) regardless of income.
The Case Management System of Superior Courts referred in the press release above was literally the most prominent issue in the clerk race last year. The eventual winner wanted to join the statewide system now being developed. The loser wanted a home-brewed system. Literally an entire race bent on which backroom computer system the clerks and courts should use.
I’d rather we spend our time opening up public records to the public. We should either pull back the 2005 law change or ask our clerks to be more like Whatcom.