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5-document limit undermines openness

Since I cover primarily the business of law, I don’t often have occasion to go to Maryland’s district courthouses to look at case files. But yesterday, I got to take a field trip to the Towson district court to check out some documents. I had quite a list, and the very nice file clerks who helped me gently told me that I was limited to looking at five files per day.

Five per day? Who instituted this rule? I understand that the clerks are probably overworked, but this policy makes a total mockery of the presumption that court records are open.

It also stifles a free press. Let’s say that I was going to the courthouse yesterday because I had heard that one judge was giving far more lenient sentences to repeat DUI offenders than his colleagues. (I wasn’t. But that would be an interesting story.) Let’s say I wanted to look at 20 of the alleged softie judge’s cases and 20 each from three of his colleagues, for comparison purposes. That would be 80 cases, and I’d have to come to the courthouse on 16 separate days to get them all.

Maybe that’s the point.

And don’t get me started on the forms I had to fill out for each file I wanted to see. If court records are supposed to be open, why do I have to disclose my name and address and provide my drivers license? At no circuit courthouse I have visited have I been asked to fill out or hand over anything. Nor has anyone ever limited the number of cases I can see per day. What gives?