The Judicial Information Systems Council, an advisory committee to the New Mexico Supreme Court, has recommended that court case file summaries be removed from the New Mexico Court Case Lookup website once the case file is destroyed. (ABQ Journal UpFront Column by Thomas J. Cole on May 26, 2010 “Another Proposal to Shut Out Public”). This is the second recommendation to the Supreme Court in a matter of just a couple of months to remove access by the public to case information on the website. These two recommendations follow the removal of all domestic violence petitions from the Case Lookup website, which has unfortunately already led to a tragedy that has been well documented by the news media.
As far as I can tell, those pushing for the removal of these records believe they are helping out a few people, who despite not paying debts, refusing to pay rent, and beating other people, have been unfairly “tarnished” because their actions are documented on a state website that the public can easily access. Despite the altruistic nature of the stated reasons, reasons that I believe do not comport with reality, there are serious ramifications that will result from the removal of these records which in most peoples’ views are far more problematic than beneficial.
There is a clear public policy in New Mexico that the government should make public records as accessible to the public as possible. We have one of the best public records acts in the country (Article 14, Chapter 2 of the NMSA 1978). Under the IPRA giving the public the runaround instead of providing access to a public record can cost a government entity $100 per day for each request they drag their feet on. There is no way to square the removal of public records from the court website with the clear public policy supporting access to public records. On the contrary, it leads the government down the slippery slope of saying “we can make it as hard as possible for you to see those records even though you have a right to see and use them”.
Removal of these records by the government says very clearly to the public that personal responsibility does not matter. There are no consequences for bad conduct that affects other people. In fact, the committee wants the majority of us to bear the burden and costs of other people’s irresponsibility. Want to rent out a house. Forget checking to see if the prospective tenant has been evicted numerous times for not paying rent and has a history of trashing properties. Too bad for you you worked years in order to afford having an investment property. You shouldn’t be able to pick or choose who to rent to someone simply because they won’t pay. That’s your problem not theirs. The state is an enabler.
Finally, and most tragically of all, despite the best intentions of those on the committee, there is absolutely no doubt that removing these records will lead to racial and gender profiling. If you as an employer can’t check out an individual person before you hire them, the safest approach for your business and your existing employees is to not hire anyone in a risky demographic. Faced with choosing between several prospective job applicants for a position with a company, but unable to check out each individual’s criminal history because the state removed the cases from the website, realistically, what do you think most employers will do? Forget hiring the young Hispanic, African-American or Native-American male competing for the same job with an Anglo female. After all demographics show that an Anglo female is less likely to get into a fist fight with co-workers. Yes, that’s illegal. But it will be the reality. The state should never be in the discrimination enabling business.
For all of these reasons, the State Supreme Court should not only reject the JISC’s recommendations, but should go a step further and order that domestic violence petitions be returned to the Case Lookup website. An open society is a safer society.