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Project update: Online access to court records

Project update: Online access to court records

Written to update newspaper publishers/editors and others on the status of an Iowa Newspaper Association project to secure access to court records for Iowa newspapers. Published in the INA weekly newsletter on April 1, 2015.

Help bring online access of court records to newspapers

In 2014, the Iowa Newspaper Association, Iowa Freedom of Information Council, Iowa Broadcasters Association and the Iowa Broadcast News Association collectively wrote a letter to the Honorable Mark Cady, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, seeking to begin a conversation with the judiciary about expanding the court’s rules on access to court records online.

Our effort took an important step forward last week. Now we need your help.

The Iowa Supreme Court has a track record of taking steps to open Iowa’s judicial process to the public so Iowans have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the judicial system. This includes expanding media relations, live-streaming oral arguments and, most recently, posting them on YouTube and updating the Expanded News Media Coverage (ENMC) rules to accommodate modern news-gathering technology. These measures make Iowa’s courts among the most transparent in the nation.

Even though the courts will complete a 99-county conversion to online records sometime this year, news reporters currently have no more access to court records than when they had to obtain paper files from clerks’ offices in county courthouses. The ability to access court files, petitions, judicial orders and opinions online would greatly expand the ability of Iowa news organizations to report on what goes on in Iowa’s courts.

The letter encouraged Iowa’s courts to take another important step toward even greater transparency and public access to court information by opening access to its online database of records, the Electronic Document Management System (EDMS), to accredited news organizations. Iowa’s move to online court records has improved records management for the courts and could also be an opportunity for improved reporting about Iowa’s courts by news media.

Last week, members of the INA and IFOIC met with Justice David Wiggins to continue this conversation. The Justice shared the general consensus of the Court at this time. Currently, approximately 83 counties have put their court records online resulting in about 90 percent of all court documents being available electronically. However, as the system has been used by the courts, lawyers and abstractors, it’s become clear that technological changes need to be made and that precautions for releasing confidential information need to be put in place. Once these issues have been addressed, the Court would like to open up the system to all Iowans, not just news organizations.

We think this is very positive. However, like any undertaking, the devil is in the details. We’ve been asked by Justice Wiggins to provide a list of the court records Iowa news organizations would be most interested in accessing 24/7 from their offices. In addition, the Court will likely be establishing a committee to further define public access and will be seeking journalists to serve. If you have thoughts about which court records your newspaper would like online access, email INA ExecutiveDirector Chris Mudge at cmudge@inanews.com.

The INA applauds the Court for its ongoing efforts to increase transparency and make the justice system in Iowa more accessible to Iowans.