Monday, December 12, 2011

Oklahoma Supreme Court supports public's need to know by not limiting personal information in court records

Oklahoma Supreme Court justices on Monday unanimously agreed not to ban complete dates of birth and street addresses from criminal and civil court records.

That's a surprise given the majority's ruling in late July denying public access to government employees' birth dates and worker identification numbers in personnel files. The majority said no valid public interest existed in knowing the information.

Just two months later, the court proposed requiring that filers remove all but the year from dates of birth, the street addresses from home addresses, the names of minor children, all but the last four digits of Social Security, drivers license, taxpayer identification and "other personal identification numbers" from court records in criminal and civil cases.

But the rule released Monday leaves complete dates of birth and street addresses in court records.

And it permits -- but doesn't require -- filers to keep confidential all but the last four digits in Social Security, taxpayer identification, financial account and driver's license numbers.

As Chief Justice Steven W. Taylor said in a concurrence:
This rule affirms the doctrine that (other than those sealed or closed by long-established law) every document filed with the Court Clerk is a public record. And this rule does not prohibit the inclusion of any information in any filed document.
Taylor's concurrence was joined by Justice Yvonne Kauger. She and Taylor had dissented in the government employees' date of birth ruling.

Under the rule released Monday, filers are responsible for following the guidelines. District court clerks are not responsible for reviewing documents for compliance. A document filed with the court clerk "become a public record as filed" even if it contains Social Security, taxpayer identification, financial account and driver's license numbers, dates of birth, street addresses "or other sensitive information."

The rule does not apply to felony, misdemeanor, traffic ticket or other cases where statutes or Court of Criminal Appeals rules "require the inclusion of the complete personal identifier number."

FOI Oklahoma Inc. and a number of other organizations and individuals had urged the court to reconsider its proposed limit on information in court records.

The court's decision Monday is a victory for the public's need to know in Oklahoma. The public has an interest in identifying elected officials, government employees and public figures involved in court actions. Oklahomans also have an interest in knowing more about the people in their lives, including those they do business with and those chosen to care for children.

The decision also helps individual Oklahomans distinguish themselves from others with similar names who are involved in court actions. In that way, the rule protects the privacy of Oklahomans.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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