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Database key to judges’ names must be disclosed, Md. high court says

Maryland’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 state’s top court ruled Thursday.

In its 5-2 decision, the Court of Appeals said disclosing a code that contains otherwise publicly available information – judges’ names – is in keeping with the presumption that court records are open to the public.

Disclosure also would compromise neither privacy nor security and would not reveal privileged communications, the high court added in saying the code must be disclosed upon request under the Maryland Public Information Act.

“The code key is just a list of names and codes,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the majority. “It did not lead or precede a decision pertaining to its content; it did not reflect deliberations among Judiciary staff; it was not prepared as an internal report or analysis to aid a decisionmaker.”

The court’s decision was a victory for the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, which seeks disclosure of the key as part of its effort to track bail determinations of individual district court judges in the city.

The AOC  had argued that the “Edit Table,” which matches the three-character codes to the judges, was a purely “administrative” document divorced from any “policy” or “directive” regarding court operations and thus not subject to MPIA disclosure.

But the Court of Appeals held that the exemption to disclosure for administrative documents, as provided under MPIA-derived court access rules, generally pertains to jury selection records and preliminary judicial work products, not to judges’ names.

“The difficulty with mandatory exceptions in records disclosure laws is that a custodian, mindful of the duty to adhere to them, may be inclined to read them literally and to use them as a checklist so as not to risk an improper and potentially injurious disclosure,” wrote McDonald, a retired judge sitting by special assignment.

“That approach – beginning the process by looking for reasons to deny inspection – is understandable but does not square with the presumption that judicial records are to be available to the public,” McDonald added. “With regard to judicial records, the custodian’s best course is first to consider whether the requested document contains information that, as a matter of common sense, ought to be withheld for privacy or security reasons, and then check it against the exceptions.”

McDonald added that the AOC, as the custodian, had “no reason to withhold the code key” of judges’ names.

The Abell Foundation’s attorney hailed the court’s decision, particularly McDonald’s reference to common sense.

“I really think that is what this case is all about,” said Benjamin Rosenberg, of Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP in Baltimore.

“There is no reason to keep it (the code) under wraps,” he added. “Everything about it is public information.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office, which represented the AOC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

McDonald was joined in the opinion by Judges Shirley M. Watts, Brynja M. Booth, Joseph M. Getty and Glenn T. Harrell Jr. Getty and Harrell are retired judges who were sitting by special assignment.

Dissenting Judges Michele D. Hotten and Jonathan Biran said the high court read the MPIA — and the access rule derived from it — too broadly, adding the act expressly bars disclosure of administrative documents such as the Edit Table that do not pertain to an agency policy or directive.

The table “offers no plan of action or guiding principles, nor does it dictate that anyone … do or not do anything (with) the information it contains,” Hotten wrote in a dissent Biran joined. “The Edit Table simply translates the meaning behind specific codes, without providing any directions as to how such information is to be used.”

Biran wrote that the high court, while bound by the current rule barring disclosure of the Edit Table, “should take the steps necessary” to make the code key information publicly available.

These steps could include an administrative order by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader directing that the code be available or the AOC implementing a new policy that provides the information to the public, Biran wrote in a dissent Hotten joined.

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.

The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Fletcher’s ruling for the foundation, prompting AOC to seek review by the high court.

The Court of Appeals issued its decision in Administrative Office of the Courts v. Abell Foundation, No. 48, September Term 2021.