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Md. high court weighs if database key to judges’ names must be disclosed

An attorney for Maryland’s Administrative Office of the Courts on Monday defended its refusal to disclose the alphanumeric key used to identify District Court judges in the public Judiciary Case Search database, telling the state’s top court the key was not a “policy” statement required to be released under Maryland state law.

Rather, the “Edit Table” that matches the alphanumeric codes to the judges is a “purely administrative” document divorced from any policy or directive regarding court operations and thus exempt from disclosure under the state’s Public Information Act, Assistant Maryland Attorney General Kevin M. Cox told the Court of Appeals.

“This isn’t some written or unwritten policy to keep the judges’ names away from the public,” Cox said. “It (the table) is there for the ease of the clerical staff.”

That argument has so far failed.

Lower courts have held that the three-character code used instead of the judges’ names on the online database constitutes a policy or directive governing the courts’ operations and thus its key, the table, must be disclosed upon request under the MPIA.

The Baltimore-based Abell Foundation has waged the fight for disclosure of the key as part of the group’s effort to track individual judges’ bail determinations in the city.

Cox, in pressing AOC’s appeal of the lower court rulings, said the foundation and other members of the public can obtain the names of district court judges in specific cases through clerks’ offices and other publicly available records.

Unlike those records, the Case Search database is intended to provide the public with only “the thousand-foot bird’s eye view” of the significant events in a case, such as the trial date and disposition, Cox said.

Case Search gives the public “a road map” of each case without requiring the administrative staff to include all the “nitty gritty” details, such as the judge’s name, Cox added.

Upholding the lower court decisions requiring the Edit Table’s disclosure would “stretch and expand” the MPIA’s disclosure provisions beyond those intended under the “plain and unambiguous” exemption for administrative records, Cox told the high court.

“It will turn records custodians into lawyers” or require them to consult counsel for each disclosure request, including those for clearly administrative documents, Cox added.

But Judge Brynja M. Booth appeared unconvinced, saying the custodians regularly seek legal advice on MPIA requests.

Countering Cox, the Abell Foundation’s attorney told the high court that AOC’s use of the alphanumeric code is not merely an administrative act but part of an unwritten policy because the code’s use is “applied uniformly and consistently” on Case Search.

“The Edit Table is the sine qua non of the policy” regarding code use and therefore must be disclosed along with the corresponding judges’ names, said Benjamin Rosenberg, of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP in Baltimore.

“You can’t have one without the other,” Rosenberg said. “What could be more basic about a judicial decision than the judge who decided it?”

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 as well as review by the Court of Special Appeals.

The intermediate appellate court upheld Fletcher-Hill’s decision last year.

“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 of Special Appeals’ reported 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 opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Robert A. Zarnoch, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

AOC then appealed to the high court.

The Court of Appeals is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in the case, Administrative Office of the Courts v. Abell Foundation, No 48, September Term 2021.