In his June 4 column, Sam Stretton called upon the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to "take a leading role" in determining how court records will be received/filed electronically and how the courts will protect the privacy of litigants. While lamenting the lack of guidance in Pennsylvania, Stretton highlighted a May 14 Commonwealth Court Historical Society program, "Harm Caused by Access to Court Records? An Attorney's Ethical Obligations." It is ironic that Stretton would use this program to complain about the lack of progress by Pennsylvania courts when, in fact, the opposite is true.
I have heard from attendees that former Commonwealth Court prothonotary Dan Schuckers, who moderated the program, and Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini both commented favorably on the Supreme Court's efforts to address the serious concerns raised by Stretton.
Moreover, had Stretton inquired of his co-presenters on that panel, including Kristen Brown, prothonotary of the Commonwealth Court, and Karen Bramblett, prothonotary of the Superior Court, he would have learned that (1) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court continues to actively and systematically address matters of public access to the courts, (2) the Supreme Court has convened a working group to make recommendations about what records and information should be available online to litigants and to the public, and (3) Brown and Bramblett are both members of the working group.
The working group, co-chaired by Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer and Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Lois E. Murphy, includes among its membership Brown, Bramblett, other judges, trial and appellate court personnel, representatives from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, various clerks and prothonotaries and me. The group has already met multiple times and is working hard to tackle the issues raised by online access to records and to balance the privacy interests of litigants with the public's right to know.
The working group intends to make formal recommendations to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court about which records should be available and in what formats and with what types of protection.
The working group has numerous issues to address before completing its work, which will take time. The group must consider the types of records maintained by Pennsylvania's trial and appellate courts, and in the context of the existing Supreme Court policies governing access to court records and Unified Judicial System case management systems, including CPCMS, PACMS, PACFile and the UJS Portal.
To accomplish its goals, the group is evaluating (1) the policies of other jurisdictions; (2) statutes that impact the accessibility of certain records; (3) applicable civil, criminal, appellate and other rules of procedure; (4) the current procedures in place throughout the state; (5) the types of sensitive data contained in court records; (6) what sensitive data should or must be restricted from public access; (7) by what method (e.g., redaction, confidential information sheets, etc.) the data should be restricted; and (8) by whom the data should be restricted.
These are complicated issues that cannot be resolved easily or quickly or in ad hoc fashion. Finally, despite Stretton's concerns, the working group is considering the needs of attorneys and will not merely make recommendations that ignore the practical and ethical concerns with which attorneys must deal.
We must also recognize that further statewide automation of the courts, including e-filing at the trial court level, will occur as part of the judiciary's overall strategic plan. It is regretful that the column failed to inform the legal community about the working group, but lawyers should feel confident that, as in the past, any proposals will be subject to public comment and will balance the competing interests of personal privacy, security and public access to court records.
Daniel J. Siegel is the principal of the Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel, which provides appellate, writing and trial preparation services to other attorneys, as well as ethical and disciplinary guidance. He is also the president of Integrated Technology Services LLC, a consulting firm that helps law offices improve their workflow through the use of technology.