AUGUSTA — The possibility of allowing electronic access to court documents has opened up a debate over public information rules in Maine.

Maine’s high court wants public input on plans to allow electronic access to court documents. Currently few court records are available online, and those that are include probate records and Maine Supreme Judicial Court rulings. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hold a public hearing on June 7.

Maine’s judicial branch in 2016 announced a 10-year, $15 million contract with Tyler Technologies to computerize the Maine District, Superior and Supreme Judicial courts. Implementation could start next year.

But it’s unclear whether members of the public will have much access.

Maine media and transparency groups argue that instead of a complete ban on records, the courts should take steps like requiring online users to register or allow a court clerk to immediately seal or redact some filings.

“No widespread misuse of public court records has been reported elsewhere, and there is no reason to think that Maine’s experience would be any different,” said Attorney Sigmund Shutz, on behalf of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.

Supporters like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine have lauded plans for the change, and say courts must protect the privacy of people involved in legal proceedings. But news media associations and private practice trial lawyers have raised questions about how far-reaching the new access could be, and what that change could mean for the court system.

Attorney Gerald Petruccelli said while filings generated by court employees including judges should be easily accessible online, the public shouldn’t have the same access to filings submitted by litigants or lawyers.

Petruccelli said the interests of private individuals shouldn’t be outweighed by media businesses who “prefer to reduce their overhead and simplify their work by the most open electronic access possible.” He said there’s “no real public interest in the intimate details of some struggling family’s dysfunction,” for example.

“Public interest ought to be distinguished from private curiosity,” he said.

But Mal Leary, a reporter with Maine Public and president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said electronic records should include anything a person could access at a courthouse. Leary added that widespread electronic access would save the court system time, money and labor.

“A public record is a public record is a public record,” he said.

It’s also an issue of equal access in the mostly rural state, as most Mainers face difficulties traveling to courthouses, wrote attorney Zachary Smith.

“Maine has an unprecedented opportunity to expand its residents’ access to legal records, and publishing docket sheets online is just not sufficient,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated at 11:07 a.m. on May 31, 2018 to include the types of Maine court records that are currently available online.

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