A coalition of media, legal groups and academics on Tuesday asked Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Max Baer to take steps to stop some counties across the state from restricting access to criminal records.
The groups' letter to Baer highlights ongoing and systematic barriers to criminal court records in Franklin, Mifflin, Northumberland and York counties.
“This isn’t just a media issue,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, a Pennsylvania-based attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Fundamentally, it’s a democracy issue for all of us to ensure that the government in the judicial branch is working.”
The coalition includes the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Knudsen Burke is a former investigative reporter for The Caucus, LNP Media Group’s publication covering state government and politics..
Court staff in many instances have said restricting access to criminal records is based partly on advice from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which operates under the Supreme Court. Court records-keeping staff in counties work for independently elected Clerks of Court.
Stacey Witalic, spokesperson for the Supreme Court, had no immediate comment.
“Access to court records is constitutionally required – in the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions,” said Melissa Melewsky, PNA’s media law counsel. This is fundamentally different from records statutorily provided such as those specified under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law, she said.
“It’s under the Constitution and Common Law and predates the U.S.,” Melewsky said. There are very limited exceptions, she said, adding, “There has got to be compelling interest for closing the records.”
In its letter, the coalition cited:
- Franklin County’s practice of restricting access to the entire criminal file when one or more of the charges does not result in conviction.
- In Mifflin County, the clerk gave a reporter just two pages – a sentencing and plea document -- for a criminal case because some of the original charges had been thrown out.
- Northumberland County’s clerk has instituted a policy of redacting critical information about defendants in pending criminal cases, including addresses and dates of birth. These restrictions are apparently applied in all pending criminal cases, making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to properly identify a defendant.
- In York County, repeated lack of access to criminal records sparked a First Amendment federal lawsuit filed by the Reporters Committee. It is ongoing in the U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania. The clerk has asserted a variety of defenses, including state law and policy in the state court system.
- Similar reports surfacing in Berks, Cumberland, Centre, Dauphin, Montgomery, Philadelphia and Schuylkill counties.