COLUMBUS, Ohio — After two years of study, the Ohio Supreme Court has proposed new rules for public access to court documents that attempt to balance personal privacy and people’s right to the information, the state’s chief justice said Nov. 16.
It is the court’s first time to put public-records policies for Ohio’s courts in writing. The rules process was expedited after lawmakers waded into the issue of how court documents should be handled last session, despite the Ohio Constitution placing authority over their handling under the high court.
The proposed rules favor openness wherever possible, Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said, and generally continue to comply with standards of the state public-records laws — though it is not a requirement.
“With a few exceptions, it’s important to note that there is a presumption that records filed in courts are open,” Moyer said.
A commission that has been studying the issue since 2005 did recommend a few changes, however.
Among the most significant is a proposal to open certain parts of court files to the public even though they are otherwise sealed.
“When a court seals a record, there likely is information in there that really doesn’t need be sealed,” Moyer said. “But we tend to seal the whole record.”
Other proposed rules would: create a process by which any person can ask to see records that have been given limited public access; allow personal information to be redacted from records before they are filed to prevent identity theft; and give parties the opportunity to limit public access to records in certain instances.
Moyer says he is sure lawyers, court clerks, journalists and others will weigh in on the rules before the public comment period ends Dec. 19. But he said the commission was made up of 20 members representing different interested groups who he believes have contended with most of the significant issues.
Court spokesman Chris Davey said the process was already under way when state lawmakers began debating a sweeping open-records law enacted last year.
An attempt was made in that legislation to set policy related to court documents. The provision was ultimately stripped out, but it caused concern within the judicial branch, Davey said.
“We routinely grant public-records requests. Courts all around Ohio do that, and it functions quite well,” he said. “But this reality that sort of came to the fore under debate of House Bill 9 made it very clear that the Supreme Court needed to spell out (its own) rules.”