CFOIC, journalist groups urge Colorado Judicial Branch to retain free, online access to civil court records

On Jan. 5, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association, Society of Professional Journalists – Colorado Pro Chapter and Colorado News Collaborative sent the following letter to Steven Vasconcellos, Colorado State Court administrator, regarding online public access to civil court records:

Dear Mr. Vasconcellos,

Free remote access to civil court records for all Coloradans has been a rare positive outgrowth of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we applaud the Colorado Judicial Branch for taking that important step.

Prior to the pandemic, journalists and other members of the public looking to acquire civil court documents had to travel to specific county courthouses or the Colorado Supreme Court’s law library in Denver and pay a fee to have those documents printed off. This was problematic for multiple reasons: It required a substantial commitment of time to drive to a courthouse or downtown Denver, particularly if someone lived far away or a reporter covered large regions of the state; the law library was the only place where someone could look up court filings from anywhere in Colorado; and because downloading documents was not permitted, printing fees could reach $100 or more if you needed copies of multiple case files or complex pieces of litigation.

Other options also were problematic. The third-party online subscription services used by attorneys can be exorbitantly expensive for journalists, researchers, pro se litigants and many others. And the docket search function on CoCourts.com only allows users to search for cases and parties; it does not provide access to the actual documents themselves.

Ultimately, the system Colorado had in place was environmentally harmful, impeded journalists’ ability to do their jobs in a timely fashion and overall limited the public’s access to public records.

The no-cost online terminal affords everyone — including those Coloradans who may not be able to pay — access to information about their state court system.

After the state closed the Supreme Court library in July as part of ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Judicial Branch made the Remote Public Access Terminal available to reporters and the public upon request. Now, news outlets can keep abreast of important local litigation without having to block off travel time, and anyone who applies for and receives access can download civil court documents at no cost.

This process isn’t perfect as public users are required to request access every 30 days. But it’s far superior to the pre-pandemic system. It is also environmentally friendlier, much more convenient, and ultimately gives the public access to court records without penalizing them for not living near a specific courthouse.

The no-cost online terminal affords everyone — including those Coloradans who may not be able to pay — access to information about their state court system.

Once the pandemic subsides, we request that the Judicial Branch continue this service at no charge to the public and that users be permitted to apply for access for longer periods of time.

Respectfully,

Jeff Roberts, Executive Director, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition
Tim Regan-Porter, CEO, Colorado Press Association
Justin Sasso, CEO, Colorado Broadcasters Association
Doug Bell, President, Society of Professional Journalists – Colorado Pro Chapter
Laura Frank, Executive Director, Colorado News Collaborative

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