1999 - Report of the Courts of Washington
Computers have brought forth a whole new world of communications, offering instantaneous access to practically unlimited information at our fingertips.
While the information age has offered the courts new opportunities for effectiveness and efficiency in 1999, technological advances have also raised sticky questions concerning privacy. Washington's judiciary is working to determine what parts of this vast new storehouse of information should be accessible to all.
JUDICIAL INFORMATION SYSTEM COMMITTEE BALANCES PUBLIC ACCESS WITH PERSONAL PRIVACY
The first two requests were approved, and the third denied. These are the kinds of judgments and policies that come under the oversight of Washington's Judicial Information System Committee (JISC).
The 16-member JISC was created by the Supreme Court 23 years ago to administer the computer database that serves nearly all the state's 200-plus district, municipal, superior, and appellate courts.
In 1999, the committee held its first public hearing to survey the public and judiciary to refine its Data Dissemination Policy as it endeavors to keep abreast of rapid advancements in information technology.
The JISC bases its policy decisions on a number of factors:
LEGITIMATE PUBLIC ACCESS
Current policies allow anyone access to information about a specific case-unless sealed by a judge, or if state law makes the record confidential, as in adoption cases. This includes the names of the parties involved and their relationships to the case, the cause of action or criminal charge, case number, and outcome of the case.
CERTAIN INFO OFF-LIMITS
Requests for computer information from OAC continue to rise. Last year, OAC received nearly one hundred data dissemination requests from organizations, public agencies, and the general public. Many other requests went directly to the state's trial courts.
Since 1995 about 5% of requests have been denied, some because the information requested is not held by court sources, others because the requests would invade privacy and/or be used for commercial purposes.
Personal information-such as social security numbers, phone numbers, and other personal identifying information of witnesses, jurors, and litigants-is off-limits to general access. Also off-limits is "compiled" information, such as all cases filed by or against a certain individual or across all levels of court.
DIFFICULT BALANCING ACT
Advancements in information technology, coupled with mandates from the Legislature, make storage and dissemination of information more complicated than ever before. For example, the courts are mandated by the Legislature to compile all family proceedings involving an individual, but are also charged with protecting the privacy of that information.
Further adding to the debate, is the increasingly sophisticated and specific nature of information gathered by the courts. The JISC is currently working on a revised policy to balance the privacy of individuals, the courts' need to conduct business openly, and the public's right to know how the courts do their jobs.
COURT CASELOAD REPORT GOES ONLINE AT
Legal professionals and the public now have access to accurate, comprehensive, up-to-the-minute information on caseloads in Washington courts. Under development throughout 1999, the annual Caseloads of the Courts of Washington debuted online in May of 2000.
The fully automated report includes information unavailable before. For example, information on Superior Courts and Courts of Limited Jurisdiction are now available in current-month, year-to-date, and annual tables.
Users can easily compile their own customized reports, using specific data tables they select. The entire report is available online in two formats: data "html" tables and "pdf" reports. The html format offers quick and easy access to specific statistical tables. The pdf format allows users to print multiple tables as a single report, using free Adobe Acrobat software.
In addition to more comprehensive and timely data, the move is expected to provide substantial savings on printing costs and staff data-entry time. While the online format offers many advantages, the traditional report, with all the familiar tables, continues to be offered, online and printable.
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