An Arkansas Supreme Court task force on Friday, July 1, approved proposed new rules for access to court records. Rick Peltz, a member of the task force and a law professor at UALR, said the proposed new rules were intended to create more openness. “This would be the most liberal access policy in the country if it’s adopted,” Peltz said.
The Supreme Court will decide whether to adopt the new rules, probably in the fall when it returns from summer recess.
All states are revising their rules on access to court records because of the impact of the Internet. Records that once were accessible only at the courthouse can now be accessed in minutes, anywhere in the world.
According to Peltz, Arkansas stands alone in opting for more openness. “All the other states are moving toward greater secrecy,” he said. If Peltz’s assessment of the new Arkansas rules is true, much of the credit goes to him, an expert on Freedom of Information law who is a member of the FOI coalition, a loose-knit organization composed mostly of journalists; the FOI coalition itself, especially Roy Ockert, editor of the Jonesboro Sun, who took a special interest in the new rules — at the urging of a Jonesboro trial lawyer — and who made suggestions for the new rules that were endorsed by the full FOI coalition, and members of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, who also advocated a policy of openness.
The task force is composed of lawyers, judges, journalists, law professors, circuit clerks, court administrators and others. On Friday, in line with previous discussions, task force members deleted from the proposal a provision that said exhibits offered at trial would be closed to public access unless a judge issued an order to the contrary. Circuit Judge Ben Story of Forrest City defended the provision, saying he didn’t want photographs of crime scenes posted on the Internet, but trial lawyers and journalists objected strongly to secrecy for exhibits, and Peltz said, “I want the exhibits on line. If somebody does something wrong with them, punish him.”