Maryland’s top court will consider whether the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts must disclose the alphanumeric key used to identify District Court judges in the public Judiciary Case Search database.
The Court of Appeals on Wednesday agreed to hear the AOC’s appeal of lower court rulings that the three-character code it 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 upon request under the Maryland Public Information Act.
The Baltimore-based Abell Foundation has waged the so-far successful court fight for disclosure of the key as part of the group’s effort to track individual judges’ bail determinations in the city.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals, in upholding a circuit judge’s order this year, 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 is not subject to MPIA disclosure.
“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 appellate court’s 3-0 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.”
Nazarian was joined in the reported opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Robert A. Zarnoch, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.
In its successful request for review by the high court, the AOC said the Court of Special Appeals read the required disclosure of policy statements too broadly to include nondisclosable administrative items — in this case the Edit Table — related to the implementation of purported policies.
For example, an appellate court’s disclosable policy statement that opinions will be issued within 60 days of argument would not entitle a requesting party to the internal communications among the court’s judges in implementing that policy, Assistant Maryland Attorney General Kevin M. Cox wrote on the AOC’s behalf.
“The Court of Special Appeals appears to be of the view that the practice of using the Edit Table is to further some unarticulated and uncodified AOC policy of not using judges’ names on the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website, despite an affidavit that made it clear that the codes are used merely as a means of efficiently entering the information (i.e., fewer things to type, and avoids confusion over judges with the same last name),” Cox wrote.
“And the Court of Special Appeals rejected the plain language interpretation of the (MPIA rule), which limits the items that are subject to disclosure to the actual rules, policies or directives that govern the operation of the court,” Cox added. “Instead, under the interpretation of the rule by the Court of Special Appeals, anytime a record is the only tangible manifestation of the [presumed and unarticulated] policy it is subject to disclosure.”
The Abell Foundation, in its failed request that the high court decline review, said the Court of Special Appeals correctly held that the Edit Table is inseparable from the AOC’s policy of shielding judges names and must be disclosed upon request.
“The AOC insists the Edit Table is not intentionally used to encrypt judges’ names on Case Search while also insisting that it be withheld from public disclosure,” wrote Abell’s attorneys, Benjamin Rosenberg and Lauren McLarney, of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP in Baltimore.
“That is a logical bridge too far,” they added. “If the Edit Table had, in fact, simply been created to make data entry more convenient, why would the AOC resist disclosing it so strenuously? The Edit Table manifestly evidences the AOC’s policy of non-disclosure.”
The Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in the case in April and is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31. The case is docketed at the high court as Administrative Office of the Courts et al. v. Abell Foundation, No. 48 September Term 2021.
The foundation first challenged the AOC’s denial of the requested Edit Table in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
In a 2019 affidavit to that court, the District Court of Maryland’s director of administrative services said 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.
The codes were in use before the Case Search system was created, according to court papers.
In October 2019, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill ruled for the foundation, saying 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 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.