A state agency has begun allowing district courts to delay public access to case files for up to 24 hours, a move that it says is necessary to handle periods of high demand but that news organizations worry will become standard procedure.
So far, court officials and press advocates say, the case file request forms prepared by the state have been used only occasionally and in Montgomery County. But John J. Murphy, the executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said he's worried that will change - and that the days when members of the public or news media can walk into a clerk's office and look at a file will be over.
"I think if you say we're going to be allowed to hold people off for 24 hours once in a while, they'll start holding off people 24 hours as much as they can. It's human nature," Murphy said. "They ought to make it plain to the courts that this 24-hour waiting period is an emergency occurrence, not a daily occurrence."
The Administrative Office of the Courts distributed a memo to district courts in July telling clerks they could require people requesting case files to fill out a form - and in times of heavy demand, take up to 24 hours to produce the files.
The use of the form was first reported Friday in The Gazette newspaper of Montgomery County.
The form, titled "Application to Inspect Public Records," asks for the case number, the type of case, the trial date, the name of the defendant, and the name and address of the person requesting the information.
Courts spokesman Darrell Pressley said the forms are necessary to ensure orderly access to the records. Litigants in a case get first priority, and members of the public come second, Pressley said.
"This is designed to balance the requests from people with court business along with those requests that are coming from the general public," Pressley said. "If you are directly involved with the case, the goal is to provide you with immediate access to records as cases are being processed. Then for the general public, again, we want to provide the general public with access to records as quickly as possible."
Court case files are specifically exempted from Maryland's Public Information Act, the law that dictates how most government documents are made available to the public.
Instead, access to those files is guaranteed by the Constitution, said Alice Neff Lucan, a First Amendment attorney who represents the press association. That means that state laws about when documents can be withheld and how long the state can wait to produce the documents - 30 days in the case of the Public Information Act - don't apply, Lucan said.
The form that was sent to the district courts includes a reference to the Public Information Act along with boxes for court workers to check indicating whether the request was granted or denied and a reminder that records must be provided within 30 days.
The press association requested that the language about the Public Information Act be removed. The association also asked that the Administrative Office of the Courts issue a policy directive clarifying the circumstances in which the form is to be used and indicating that priority should be given to journalists on deadline.
"It's not because journalists are special but because journalists act as surrogates for the public," Lucan said. "They are the ones who come in and observe what's going on in the courthouse and report it to the public."
The courts are reviewing the press association's request, Pressley said.