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Ohio Supreme Court Restricts Public Access to Court Records

by David M. Reutter

The Ohio Supreme Court has approved new rules that allow state courts to restrict public access to court documents or entire case files if deemed necessary.

The new rules, which have an effective date of July 1, 2009, are codified in Rules 44 to 47 of the Rules of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio. The public access rules begin with the usual definition of terms before stating that a “court or clerk of court shall make a court record available by direct access, promptly acknowledge any person’s request for direct access, and respond to the request within a reasonable amount of time.”

Court records are presumed to be open to the public, and except for a request for bulk distribution the requestor has the option “to have a court record duplicated on paper.” If the records are obtained for commercial use, a policy may be adopted by the court or clerk that limits the number of court records provided per month. The term “commercial” is to be narrowly construed and “does not include news reporting, the gathering of information to assist citizens in the understanding of court activities, or nonprofit educational research.”

In responding to a request for direct access to a court record, the court or clerk may charge actual costs. That term was defined as “the cost of depleted supplies; records storage media costs; actual mailing and alternative delivery costs, or other transmitting costs; and any direct equipment operating and maintenance costs, including actual costs to private contractors for copying services.”

Additionally, the rules require the removal of all personal identifiers (such as Social Security numbers) from documents filed with the court, which is the responsibility of the party filing the documents. Personal identifiers must be submitted to the court on a separate form that is restricted from public access.

The rules further address requirements when the court or clerk restricts access to a document or case file. Records requests may be restricted if the court finds “clear and convincing evidence that the presumption of allowing public access is outweighed” after considering three factors: (a) whether public policy is served by restricting public access; (b) whether any state, federal or common law exempts the document or information from public access; and (c) whether factors exist that support restricting public access, such as risk of injury to persons, individual privacy rights and interests, propriety business information, public safety, or fairness of the adjudicatory process.

Any person may file a motion to obtain documents or case files that have been restricted from public access; such motions require a hearing to determine if there is “clear and convincing evidence that the presumption of allowing public access is no longer outweighed by a higher interest.”

The new rules only apply to cases filed on or after the date the rules become effective. They were to go into effect on May 1, 2009, but the effective date was later changed to July 1 “to allow more time for judges, court staff, members of the public and the media to become familiar with new rules on public access to court records.”

Source: Amendments to Rules 44-47 of the Rules of Superintendence for the Courts of Ohio

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