Newspaper review finds ‘loophole’ in Maryland records system

January 5, 2020 GMT

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A newspaper’s review of Maryland court records has found an apparent loophole that allows documents filed electronically to be kept from the public.

The Capital reported Sunday that court documents filed through the state’s electronic record-keeping system can be made secret by attorneys, judges and clerks and their staffers without a court order or public notice.

In contrast, attorneys who want a record kept secret must obtain an order from a judge when filing by paper. That process requires notice and an opportunity for any interested party to intervene.

The newspaper reported it’s unclear how many records have been so easily sealed across the state.

In the case of the man accused of opening fire in the Annapolis newsroom in 2018, killing five employees, the newspaper learned through a public records request that almost 70 percent of the documents were designated “confidential,” keeping them from public view.

The Capital Gazette and Baltimore Sun, which are owned by Baltimore Sun Media, have filed a motion asking a judge to unseal most of the file.

Terri Charles, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the Maryland court system, said the office does not monitor the use of the electronic filing feature.

“I think it’s a loophole that probably needs to be examined further,” O’Neill said. “I think additional criteria needs to be in place to make sure that it’s being utilized consistent with the Maryland Rules of Procedure.”

Some experts in open government and law who spoke with the newspaper also called for a review of the feature.

“There’s a lot of important information that only comes to light through court cases, and having an open court system is an important part of a democracy where things can’t be hidden,” said Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for open courts, among other issues.