For about a week, anyone in North Dakota could access any court record in the state, online. Victims’ names and social security numbers were suddenly open to the public eye.
However, that access was taken away after privacy complaints piled up.
Since January 1st, when you searched a name on the North Dakota courts website, you could actually click on documents to see, or print.
As of 4:45 yesterday evening, that was no longer possible. Here’s why:
North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Jon Jensen explained, “We want to be prudent. We want to be careful, and since we have discovered that there is some private information, we’re taking the prudent step of taking a step back.”
These documents have always been public. You could always go to your county clerk and request any number of them. They just were not as readily accessible.
“It’s more of a temptation for people to go out and look at things they wouldn’t normally look at,” shared Julie Lawyer.
A North Dakota court rule says certain private information has to be redacted before it’s filed into the court system. The rule has been around since 2009.
“Attorneys who work on divorce cases have to file a redacted order that doesn’t have social security numbers, drivers license numbers… protects the names of children,” explained added.
North Dakota State Courts and Chief Justice Jon Jensen expected that rule was being followed more often than it actually was. He says from the complaints they’ve received: when private information was exposed, it was generally submitted by sources other than the court itself, like private lawyers.
We asked Chief Justice Jensen, “Did you expect any non-compliance? Because in our minds, it’s scary if anything is out there that’s not supposed to be.”
He responded, “Well, we expected high compliance. 100 percent, I think that would be unrealistic, but certainly, an amount where it would be easy to correct.”
Now, there’s no way to know just yet how often this is happening, but no records that pre-dated 2009 were available by click.
Although, Julie Lawyer says sometimes old documents are scanned into new motions, making a loophole for old documents.
North Dakota is the first state to try to make court records accessible to this extent. It was a three-year process, involving an initial public comment period.
“It was a ‘best practices suggestion’ by the National Center of State Courts,” Chief Justice Jensen added.
So what’s the next step?
The goal is to bring these documents back online eventually.
Chief Justice Jenson says they will begin with documents that were written by state courts. He says he’s confident these will not include sensitive information.
“Keep in mind, the majority of records in our court system are not generated by the court. They are generated by parties, and filed by state court,” he said.
There is no set timeline yet, but Chief Justice Jensen says it is a priority.
He explained, “Public access is important. You have to remember we have a very rural state, and there are impediments to someone physically going to the courthouse.”
Laywer says she’s glad they took it down until the privacy factor is sorted out. She says going forward, she hopes closed cases will be the only ones available by the click of a button to avoid temptation by witnesses and jury members.
A couple more notes: the way the system is designed, it does not allow for bulk downloads. You have to actually search a specific name and click on documents, one at a time.