Court records are public records, which means they belong to the public.

Going back to Colonial times, these records have been kept in courthouses around the state, where the public can review them. For a long time, these courthouses were the most convenient place for most of the people.

Now, the most convenient place for these records is not really a place at all, but an electronic database that is accessible from anywhere at any time of day. That’s why federal and state courts make records available online. Maine has slowly come around to this idea, and this month has finally started putting court records online in a way that they can be accessed.

But they are not accessible to everyone. The records that the state judicial branch is putting online can be read only by members of the public who pay $1 per page. Since filings can run many pages in length, these public records will be denied to members of the public who can’t pay out $20, $30 or even $100 to review a document that belongs to them.

The court system operates on a limited budget, and it says that these fees are needed to pay for the expensive move from paper records to electronic ones. But making some members of the public foot the bill while completely shutting out other members of the public is not a fair way to pay for this transition. These records are public property, and the cost of maintaining them should be shared by everybody.

This problem was first announced in a seemingly benign sentence in the rules governing electronic case records that were approved in August. The rules call for “reasonable fees for providing access to court records.”

The key word is “reasonable.” Currently, court clerks charge $1 a page to copy paper records, but there are some important differences between what’s been done for years and the new fees for electronic records.

Someone visiting a courthouse can read as many pages in the court files as they wish without any charge. If they want to copy any of the pages, they are charged $1 a page.

The electronic records cannot be viewed without paying the fee, $2 for the first page and $1 per page after that. And even though the copying fee is steep, it more closely approaches the real cost of a public employee photocopying a document and processing payment. No human assistance is necessary for someone who wants to access an electronic record.

Federal courts make their records available electronically. They charge only 10 cents per page and have a $3 maximum price for downloading documents that are more than 30 pages long. Even at that rate, a federal appeals court recently ruled that those fees were higher than necessary to operate the system and could be reduced.

It’s good that Maine is finally putting these public records in a place where the public will be able to access them easily. But charging such high fees is tantamount to shutting the courthouse door to some members of the public.

The judicial branch should come up with a more equitable approach, and the Legislature and governor should make sure that it has the money to do that.


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