Public records are not just for journalists and activists. And they aren't the only ones who complain or even notice when records are denied. David Weinstein made a nice little business use of something called "the traffic system docket disposition verification pages"-basically an advance docket report of the Maryland District Court.
A lawyer specializing in minor traffic cases, Weinstein would extract the dockets from the court system's mainframe and then mail an advertisement to everyone with a case scheduled for a few weeks hence. "I want to be able to send a postcard to everybody else scheduled to be in court on the same day and time," he says, "so I might pick up another case."
All that stopped dead on July 1, when the court system abolished outside access to the mainframe, citing concerns that non-public information might be "inadvertently released" if the system were left open. Now, only the court's web-based query system, "Case Search," can be used. That system has a lot of information, but it is far less useful than the mainframe and it doesn't include any way to extract the upcoming docket reports.
Ironically, says Weinstein, the court system still sells access to other types of advance docket reports-the serious traffic cases and criminal cases. He says that since the system was closed to him, he's missing out on two or three cases per week.
Facing a serious loss of business, Weinstein started looking for a workaround last month. He offered to pay the 50 cents a page the courts are allowed to charge for public documents under the Maryland Public Information Act. He asked the court for an explanation.
He received none.
"I got a letter from court office of communications denying me access," he says. "They sidestepped all my legal arguments for access and decided based on not having a procedure in place to allow access."
Three weeks ago Weinstein started calling reporters. And his story got written up in The Sun and The Daily Record. But still there was no word on what legal justification the court was using to foreclose previously public information. City Paper asked District Court spokesperson Terri Bolling to ask the Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn (or whoever else might know) for that legal justification.
For three weeks, Bolling kept in touch but never did come up with any legal reasoning.
She did come up with a technical reason: "Outside of the mainframe it did not exist the way he was asking for it, so a special report would have to be produced," Bolling said on Aug. 12. She said the court's Technology Oversight Board will examine the matter at its next meeting, perhaps in a month or so (she was unsure of the date).
Bolling offered Weinstein the docket reports on each day, for that day-for 50 cents a page. This, of course, is useless to him because he needs them a week or two in advance in order to mail out his postcards. But it is progress of a sort.
"What I've learned, however, is that the docket information must be public, since it is being offered on the day of trial," Weinstein says. "So the question is: does it exist in a way that doesn't require the district court to produce a special report? And I say it is in that form because it already exists on the mainframe."
David Cuillier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona and former chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee, finds Weinstein's logic compelling. "In most states public records are dictated by policy rules-that is, the courts make up the rules," he says. "In a few states the courts are subject to public records laws.
"But, really, there is no sense in getting bogged down in the law. We need to look at what makes sense here. Should information that has been presumptively public for hundreds of years be made secret?"
Weinstein says he asked to attend the Technology Oversight board meeting, but Bolling told him she was not sure those were open to the public. He laughs as he recounts that to a reporter. "I have no desire to be at war with the district court on this issue," Weinstein says. "But the answers I keep getting are getting more and more interesting."