Will a state Supreme Court official decide which Oklahomans are entitled to obtain digital records of multiple court cases?
Comments this week by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice haven’t clarified how the court will handle requests from the general public and press for bulk copies of digital court records.
James Edmondson told The Oklahoman on Tuesday the court would comply with requests from noncommercial entities and the media on an individual basis.
But on the same day, Edmondson also told the Tulsa World the court “will honor media and public requests for information."
Did he mean all or just some?
Edmondson told both newspapers the court’s new prohibition on requests for bulk case data was intended to apply only to commercial entities.
However, the court’s administrative directive, passed unanimously by the justices on Oct. 8, makes no distinction between commercial and noncommercial requests. Nor does it mention requests from the public and press being decided individually by a court official. (SCAD-2009-92)
That the court would deny requests from companies is troubling enough. More disturbing would be a court official deciding which Oklahomans are worthy of receiving digital court records for more than one case at a time.
Edmondson told the Tulsa World this week, "The Supreme Court will comply with the Open Records laws and other laws affecting public records.”
But that law doesn’t allow a sheriff, police chief, mayor, or state agency director to decide who can and who cannot have access to the government records in their possession. For good reason: Government officials have a tendency to shield from public view the documents that embarrass them.
Edmondson’s brother, state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, said a decade ago that requesters can be asked for only enough information to determine if a search fee should be charged because the records request is for a commercial purpose.
Otherwise, he emphasized in a written opinion, “In no event could a public body or public official ever require a requestor to provide the reason for a request for access to records. . . .” (1999 OK AG 55, ¶¶ 18-19)
ALL Oklahomans “are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)
That includes our courts.
To put such a decision in the hands of a bureaucrat would abrogate the intent and purpose of the Oklahoma Open Records Act: “Ensure and facilitate the public’s right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.” (Id.)
Concerns over the court’s administrative directive perhaps could have been avoided if the justices had included the public in their decision-making.
After all, these records belong to the public.
All we can hope for now is that the court will either rescind or substantially revise its rule.
Joey Senat, Ph.D.
OSU School of Journalism