In yet another Massachusetts public records milestone, the Center for Public Integrity gave the Commonwealth an “F” for judicial accountability, citing the large number of exemptions that stonewall public access to court records. But what does that really mean?
Now, of all of Massachusetts’ egregious public records exemptions (and there are plenty), some exemptions that pertain to judicial records would, at least in theory, actually make sense. Sensitive legal proceedings are textbook examples of the kinds of records that shouldn’t be made freely available to the public. Doing so would undermine the integrity of the legal process.
That said, there’s a big difference between a judicial record and a record in possession of the judicial branch.
Back in 2014, after a story broke about corruption and favoritism in Massachusetts’ Clerk Magistrate system, we requested an employment list of all those currently appointed to the position. The request was denied, on grounds that the state’s public records law doesn’t extend to the judiciary and that, even if it did, those records would be considered personnel files.
However, the letter did helpfully conclude with the suggestion that we were welcome to try searching the internet.
One year later, Pioneer requested the total over-time payment doled out to Clerk Magistrates for the last four years, with the reasoning that such a record was clearly an administrative document and there would be no grounds to deny it – other than pure obstructionism.
The request was denied, again on the grounds that our state’s public records law doesn’t extend to the judiciary.
Finally, a similar investigation into another potential scandal, involving a so-called “sponsor list” which one judge kept on hand to see which applicants were getting a nod from a higher-up, met with a similarly opaque fate. A request for this list, whose existence was confirmed by trial documentation, and any associated letters of recommendation or other supporting documentation, was denied based on – you guessed it – grounds that public records law doesn’t extend to the judiciary.
No attempt was made to give any reason other than the blanket exemption – just a straightforward ‘releasing the list would make us look bad, and we don’t have to, and you can’t make us, so that’s that.’
A democracy is not healthy when public officials – in any branch of government – can avoid accountability by literally claiming the law does not apply to them.
After all, by denying these three requests, whose rights are the courts trying to protect?
J. Patrick Brown is the Editor of MuckRock.com, an organization which facilitates public record requests and serves as an independent news source covering government transparency issues nationwide.