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Editorial: Getting court records shouldn’t be an Odyssey

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When judges at Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court – the busiest court in the state – join good government advocates in being concerned about the lack of access to court records on the new case management system, the Administrative Office of the Courts should take notice.

Before public safety is seriously compromised.

AOC has mandated Metro Court convert to “Odyssey” so it can plug into the system used across the state and avoid the “periodic functionality lapses” its decades-old system was prone to. Director Arthur Pepin says time and money constraints mean it will not carry older cases.

So, need to know if the person applying to work in your nursing home committed a felony three years ago? Too bad. Or if the person who wants to drive the day-care van has a stack of misdemeanor traffic violations going back a decade? So sad. Or if the defendant in front of your bench has been found guilty of a crime in the not so recent past? Tough luck.

Taking all that into consideration, judges have a right – make that a responsibility – to be concerned.

Because only supplying online access to felony cases less than two years old and misdemeanor cases going back five years (excluding DWI and domestic violence) puts an undue burden on all members of the public. Expecting them – that includes everyone from court staff to social workers to employers to youth sports officials – to comb through court archives like Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men” is not only absurd, it amounts to de facto records expungement.

Factor in that Pepin says the system may be maintained on a five-year rolling basis, meaning case files would be deleted after that time period, depending on storage space and a decision on whether a person’s reputation should be protected, and the AOC is attempting to not rewrite history, but routinely and systematically erase it without going through the legislative and executive branches usually required to make and amend state law.

Metro Court Chief Judge Julie Altwies said at a recent press conference that “there are a thousand reasons people need to have information about prior cases. Not to mention that the judges need it.” Greg Williams, an attorney and president-elect of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says “it’s a bad decision, because you’re taking a lot of years of public records – that are now fairly easily accessible – and making them hard to get. Any time access to public records is diminished, the public suffers.”

The public wants and needs reasonable public access to public records of public business the public has paid for.

Taking these records offline with the switch to Odyssey is a bad way to kick off Sunshine Week, which starts March 16 and highlights the importance of access to public information. The AOC should spend the time leading up to it revising its regressive online policies.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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