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Rules committee approves changes to court e-filing process

Judicial officers ‘are supposed to be neutral and impartial and not an investigative body,’ Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey Morrissey told lawmakers Wednesday as they consider whether to re-introduce legislation to transfer the responsibility from the Office of the Public Defender to the Judiciary. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey thanked newspapers for raising concerns about the way attorneys used the ‘confidential’ filing option in the Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC) system. (The Daily Record/File photo)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland’s electronic court filing system will no longer allow attorneys to shield documents from the public with the click of a button under proposed rules approved by a committee Friday.

District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey thanked newspapers, particularly Annapolis’ Capital Gazette and The Baltimore Sun, for raising concerns about the way attorneys used the “confidential” filing option in the Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC) system, which is used in most counties in the state.

“The presumption in the judiciary — and the judiciary is committed to this presumption — is that all case records are public,” Morrissey told the Court of Appeals Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure Friday.

Though the Maryland Rules allow for documents to be shielded only under certain circumstances, reporters learned in at least one criminal case in Anne Arundel County that hundreds of filings had been hidden from public view, with no explanation or formal sealing order from the court.

“Part of the problem has been attorneys do not read the rules as thoroughly as they should,” Morrissey said.

The committee voted to approve new rules and amendments to current rules that require attorneys to either file a form explaining why all or part of a document must be shielded or file a motion to seal. The forms and motions explaining why a document cannot be viewed will be public.

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, who chairs the rules committee, said the purpose of the amendments is to clarify or fix any perceived ambiguities and to promote transparency. He echoed Morrissey’s thanks to the newspapers for reporting on the issue and said the Maryland Judiciary would not have known about the problem otherwise.

“We are grateful to the news media for their diligence in picking this up and alerting us to it,” he said.

The changes will now require a document that contains restricted information to so state prominently on the first page.

The filing must be accompanied by the form, with boxes checked to explain the reasons that all or part of a document is not subject to public view. Some options on the draft form distributed Friday include “medical report,” “emergency evaluation” and “financial statement,” all of which are shielded by law. The form is currently being created by the state court administrator.

If an entire document is not subject to public inspection, the filer must explain why in the form or otherwise submit a redacted version of the document for public viewing.

To place a document under seal, the filer must state the legal basis to seal it, include “sealed” in the file name, and file a motion and proposed order to seal. Court clerks are instructed to reject submissions purporting to be sealed that do not refer to a sealing order already in place or that do not include a motion to seal.

“We remain committed to this system running right,” Morrissey said.

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