March 2008 Editorial Winner

Secret courts are wrong

By John M. Wylie II, Oologah Lake Leader

The courts of justice of this state shall be open to every person… —Oklahoma Constitution, Article 2, Section 6 The Governor and other state officers, including the Justices of the Supreme Court, shall be liable and subject to impeachment for willful neglect of duty… —Oklahoma Constitution, Article 8, Section 1  

Last week’s order by the Oklahoma Supreme Court pulling court documents off the Internet and stripping key information from paper documents filed in court is both frightening and outrageous.

It is bad enough that the justices tried to create a closed court system that would please Adolph Hitler or Josef Stalin. What is worse is that they developed this order in secret, consulting only a handful of court clerks and think tanks while completely ignoring Oklahoma’s citizens.

Worse still, the chief justice even slapped a gag order on the individual court clerks and judges who are elected by the people they serve.

“Chief Justice James R. Winchester has directed that I personally take all telephone calls from the public and others regarding the entry of the attached order,” said Michael D. Evans, state court administrator, in a statewide email. “Do not attempt to answer any questions related to this order.”

That order, later “clarified,” was a shock to Rogers County District Court Clerk Candi Czapansky, who said she did not know anyone had the right to gag a citizen or an elected official from discussing a matter of public concern.

“I’d never seen anything like that before,” she said.

Former Chief Justice Marian Opala refused to take part in the secret proceedings, and called the results “shocking.”

He is absolutely right. The results are as shocking as the process was inexcusable.

We hope Chief Justice Winchester and his colleagues who imposed this monstrosity on the people of Oklahoma will see the light, vacate their ruling, and go back to square one.

There are some legitimate issues here. For example, we agree that Social Security and bank account numbers have no place in public court records. But dates of birth and addresses are a different matter—without those basic identifiers, the public has no idea of who is in court or who may be held on criminal charges. That can work to the detriment to those on either side of a lawsuit or a criminal case.

And there is absolutely no reason to limit Internet access to otherwise public records. The federal courts have done an exemplary job of making all its court records open, resulting in a bounty of information valuable to scholars, journalists and average citizens.

Open public hearings will provide what Winchester claims his Star Chamber proceeding was supposed to do—balance the interests of privacy and the public’s right to know. Any further secrecy will further undermine already shaky public confidence in Oklahoma’s justice system.

If Winchester and his colleagues don’t reverse course and let the public fully participate in a process to properly consider these issues, they will clearly have violated the two constitutional provisions mentioned above.

If that happens, it may be time for an impeachment investigation in the Oklahoma House.