October Editorial Winner

Stiles is right on court records

TED STREULI, The Journal Record

State Rep. Aaron Stiles, R-Norman, questioned court clerks recently about which public documents do – or don't – get posted online.
Canadian County Court Clerk Marie Ramsey-Hirst said she uses her own discretion to withhold documents with Social Security numbers, bank accounts and other information that may anger parties.
The Open Records Act says "persons who submit information to public bodies have no right to keep this information from public access." That includes information submitted to the courts. A clerk should redact personal identifiers such as Social Security numbers, but there's no reason the entire document should be hidden.
Judges have, at their discretion, chosen to seal court records for good reasons, in the interest of justice. But all too often court records are sealed for bad reasons: because one party feared some embarrassing piece of information would attract attention or because an individual, perhaps a campaign donor, just didn't want anyone to know his business.
In this age of big data, when personal information is collected on everything from preferences in laundry detergent to taste in fiction, people are a little bashful. But it is clear in this and all democratic societies that honesty in government is directly tied to openness in government. As former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis famously said 100 years ago, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." It was Brandeis who 23 years earlier had penned The Right to Privacy for the Harvard Law Review, asserting that such a right should exist. But even there Brandeis argued that, "The right to privacy does not prohibit any publication of matter which is of public or general interest."
In recent years, two high-profile divorce cases were sealed on a judge's whim. One of those cases had the potential to decide who held control of a $22 billion public company, but investors were left to speculate.
"The ones that bother us are not necessarily the ones that are sealed up in the interest of justice," said Oklahoma Press Association Executive Vice President Mark Thomas. "It's the one sealed up in the interest of the judge and sometimes the interest of the clerk."
There must be clear rules, and all Oklahoma residents must be treated alike in our courts. Aaron Stiles is on the right path.

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