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State high court OKs rules on data access


Seeking to ensure that most court records stay open while protecting individual privacy, Maryland's highest court yesterday adopted the state's first set of rules for public access to court records - including electronic ones.

The rules, which will take effect Oct. 1, cover the diverse records kept in courthouses - civil disputes, criminal cases, divorce squabbles, marriage and business licenses, and property records - as well as the court's administrative records.

The rules look ahead to a time when more court records will be kept electronically, and they establish a uniform way to handle demands for large chunks of electronic data.

Yesterday's vote by the Court of Appeals was 6-1, with Judge Dale R. Cathell of the Eastern Shore dissenting. Amid backlogs in indexing land records, he said he was concerned that the court never heard from lawyers who handle land transactions.

The court voted 5-2 to end the judiciary's use of complete Social Security numbers and put Maryland in line with federal courts that use only the last four digits.

Proponents said the abbreviated number would be enough for investigators and businesses that compile data while serving as a protection against identity fraud.

Cathell and Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. of Prince George's County opposed the shift to a four-digit Social Security identifying number.

But the judges were barely off the bench when representatives of data compilers and investigators, who wanted to retain the nine-digit Social Security number, began strategizing on how to trump the court's rule.

"The Legislature is in session," said Bruce Bereano, who lobbied on behalf of a Rockville company that gathers information used for background checks. "We can't exist with the four digits."

Judge Alan M. Wilner, who headed a three-person panel that wrote the new rules, said he felt the court's action was appropriate given identity theft problems elsewhere.

"Let them go to the Legislature. If they want to give it out, fine," he said.

News media representatives said they will ask the judiciary's Rules Committee to open records such as those involving child abuse, which government agencies close by law. But the law is unclear about what happens when the issues surface in court, said Carol Melamed, vice president of government affairs for The Washington Post. She examined the proposed rules for the 160-newspaper Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, of which The Sun is a member.

But in general, Melamed praised the new rules, which resulted from discussions last year among judges, government agencies and affected business groups. In 2000, an effort by a committee of government officials to sharply restrict access to computerized information met with an outcry from commercial interests and the news media. A second group later recommended much broader access.

"The overall rules are so good," Melamed said. "They are an improvement with what the court started out with over three years ago."

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