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Judiciary must surrender key to judges names in Case Search, appeals court says

The Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts must disclose the alphanumeric key used to identify District Court judges in the public Judiciary Case Search database, a state appeals court ruled Thursday in a victory for a Baltimore-based group’s effort to track individual judges’ bail determinations in the city.

In its 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said the three-character code the AOC uses in the database instead of the judges’ names constitutes a policy or directive governing the courts’ operations and thus its key must be disclosed under the Maryland Public Information Act to the Abell Foundation, which requested it.

The appellate court, in upholding a circuit judge’s order, rejected the AOC’s argument that the edit table, which matches the codes to the judges, was a purely administrative document  divorced from any policy or directive regarding court operations and thus not disclosable.

“The Edit Table may not state the words of the policy or directive itself, but it embodies and enables the AOC’s policy decision to display the codes on Case Search rather than the names of the judges,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote in the court’s unreported decision. “In that sense, then, the Edit Table serves as a policy or directive that governs the operation of the court and therefore is not within the universe of documents the custodian is required to withhold.”

As an unreported opinion, the court’s decision applies only to the parties in the case and cannot be cited as precedent or persuasive authority by any other litigants.

Abell’s attorney, Benjamin Rosenberg, said Friday that he welcomed the court’s decision but remained perplexed as to why the AOC encodes rather than names the District Court judges on Case Search, while the names — and addresses — of District Court litigants and criminal defendants are routinely disclosed.

“There is something really wrong about that,” said Rosenberg, of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP in Baltimore. “Looming behind all of that is a larger issue, which is why? What’s the point of that?”

In a circuit court affidavit, the District Court of Maryland’ director of administrative services stated that the judges are assigned a unique three-digit alphanumeric code used by clerks who input information into the computer system. The codes are used “to efficiently input information about docket events into the mainframe system,” Polly Harding stated in the 2019 affidavit.

The codes were in use before the Case Search system was created, according to court papers.

The Maryland Judiciary, of which the administrative office is part, referred a request for comment on the Court of Special Appeals’ decision to the attorney general’s office, which is representing the AOC is court.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the decision or on any plans to seek review by the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals.

In October 2019, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill ruled that the key is “purely administrative” but only because of a policy or directive to use the codes. He determined the MPIA did not require the request be denied.

Pointing out that the judiciary posts explanations on its website of other shorthand codes used in docketing, Fletcher-Hill said there was “no basis asserted to distinguish between that operational policy, practice, or directive and the non-disclosure of the Edit Table providing a very similar key to identify individual District Court judges.”

Fletcher-Hill granted summary judgment for the foundation and gave the AOC 20 days to turn over the record or seek a stay of the order to allow for an appeal. The administrative office sought the stay and appealed.

Nazarian was joined in the Court of Special Appeals’ opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Robert A. Zarnoch, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Administrative Office of the Courts et al. v. Abell Foundation, No. 1955, September Term 2019.

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