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A proposed rule that would make most state court records available via the Internet is drawing broad opposition, with some critics saying it takes transparency too far and others saying it doesn’t go far enough. The comment period closed March 24 on an overhaul of Rule 1:38, suggested in January by the state Supreme Court’s Special Committee on Public Access to Court Records. An accompanying report recommended further expansion of access. The rule would make court records available online only after lawyers scrub them of clients’ personal information. Attorneys would have to certify in initial pleadings that they redacted all “confidential personal identifiers” – defined as Social Security, driver’s license, vehicle plate, insurance policy, financial account and credit card numbers – and will do so in future filings. Lawyers have expressed concern that redaction will be burdensome and that litigants’ privacy may nevertheless be comprised. In a March 14 resolution, the Middlesex County Bar Association said that culling personal data will have “substantial costs” and that “the wholesale publication of court records over the Internet,” especially family court records, will intrude on personal privacy. The county bar warned that the rule might lead the wealthy to opt for private dispute resolution forums to preserve privacy, leaving the less affluent stranded in court and subject to exposure. The New Jersey State Bar Association urged exemption of Family Part case records, especially domestic-relations orders and equitable-distribution notices, and encouraged the Court to emulate New York in sealing essentially all family records, except the names of parties and nature of the action. The proposed rule would exclude 35 categories of records, among them civil commitment, mediation, domestic violence, guardian ad litem documents; child abuse, paternity and adoption records; and family case information statements. The State Bar also suggest that the Court develop a brochure that would warn litigants about Internet exposure of filings; publish corrections and updates on released data; and impose on data-aggregation companies that buy the information a duty to keep the records current and accurate. The New Jersey Creditors Bar Association complained that the rule mandates redaction of personal information that it says is necessary in some cases: credit card numbers in collection matters and driver’s license numbers in auto accident cases. It also said there is no need to redact credit card numbers in collection cases because accounts are closed before suit is commenced. The association also pointed out that redaction will require printing out e-mailed documents, deleting data and re-scanning them for electronic filing. The New Jersey Criminal Disposition Commission, an advisory body that evaluates criminal justice policies, voiced concern that disclosing records of criminal convictions would make it harder for released inmates to find jobs and interfere with their efforts to re-enter society. Woodbury solo Michael Pimpinelli cautioned that even though evidence of prior convictions is not admissible in a criminal case, jurors’ curiosity might lead them to look up a defendant’s criminal record and perhaps share whatever they learned with other jurors, tainting the trial. The Southern New Jersey Chapter of the Appraisal Institute, an association of professional real estate appraisers, filed a comment that referred to a Feb. 4 letter from Presiding Tax Court Judge Joseph Small on behalf of the tax judges, opposing disclosure of appraisal reports filed in tax appeals due to a feared breach of taxpayer confidentiality. John Paone Jr., of Paone & Zaleski in Woodbridge, says “reliable sources” have told him the presiding family judges similarly oppose the rule. That is the “scuttlebutt,” agrees another family lawyer who does not wish to be named. Court spokeswoman Winnie Comfort says she cannot comment on what, if any, comments have been received from judges. Legal Services of New Jersey, which provides lawyers for poor people, warns that the risk of identity theft will increase because litigants’ birthdates and home addresses are not to be excised. It also worries that though personal identifiers are to be removed from future filings, they would still be present in existing records. Its own clientele, unsophisticated in commercial matters, is especially vulnerable, wrote Legal Services president Melville Miller Jr. and vice president Harold Rubenstein. Legal Services and the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women both say the recommendation to exclude records in domestic violence matters is not enough. They ask the Court to shield records of all litigation involving domestic violence victims. The coalition also told the Court that a proposed notice about the public nature of records might scare off victims from seeking court help. The notice should make clear that some records, including domestic violence records, are not open, it said. It is not only the legal profession that is stewing. The data-gathering industry fears direct Internet access to court files will render it superfluous and drive it out of business. For instance, Sondra Fabozzi, president of Infoscreen, a Shrewsbury company that conducts employment background checks by searching court records, said New Jersey companies are already at a disadvantage with out-of-state competitors because New Jersey collects a tax on in-state clients. Signature Information Solutions in Trenton disagreed with a recommendation that docket data released in bulk should carry a disclaimer stating the judiciary cannot guarantee the accuracy of all the records. The company, formerly known as Charles Jones, said it certifies its searches and informs the court when it finds errors, and a disclaimer would cause confusion for lawyers, lenders and title insurers that rely on its certification. Media Groups Want More Media interests and groups that advocate for greater accountability were pleased with the recommendations but said even more should be done to enhance access. The Foundation for Open Government said that, like the Open Public Records Act, the rule should set a time limit for complying with requests, citing the one-day standard for on-site files in Court Directive 15-05. FOG would also like to see penalties for willful or repeated failure to comply and reduced fees for copies. It also suggests leaving in the last four digits of Social Security, license and financial account numbers rather than deleting them in their entirety to minimize the chance of mistaken identity. The American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey sought clarification that otherwise private information relied on by judges in reaching decisions thus becomes public. It suggested mechanisms for correcting errors and omissions in released data and a “Know Your Rights” brochure for litigants, among other improvements. The Star-Ledger of Newark praised the Court’s public access committee, chaired by Justice Barry Albin, as “a model of transparency” but differed with its view that some digital data should not be available online, only at courthouse terminals, saying such information would be relegated to “practical obscurity.” The newspaper said that the rule’s definition of “court record” should be expanded to encompass information received, not just maintained, by a court, and that guardian ad litem records should also be open so the public can keep tabs on who is being appointed as guardians and how much they are paid. The Star-Ledger also objected to the proposed rule’s exclusions for criminal presentence reports, pretrial intervention records, victim statements and indictable and disorderly persons complaints where probable cause has not been found. The probable cause requirement would have delayed its reporting on the arrest in January of Bogota Mayor Steven Lonegan for trespassing at Gov. Jon Corzine’s open meeting in Cape May, the newspaper said. Avvo, a lawyer-database company in Seattle that recently petitioned the Court over the denial of access to bulk data on attorney registrations, endorsed the proposed rule but expressed concern about the exclusion of the Office of Attorney Ethics, Disciplinary Review Board, Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, and other related committees and entities.

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