Editorial: Colorado court records too often kept hidden

Daily Camera (Boulder): In an open society, government business is the people’s business, and citizens have a right to monitor what officials do in their name. This is a principle long established through democratic traditions as well as laws and rules concerning public meetings and freedom of information. But public access to records in Colorado courts — venues where government authorities sometimes decide the fate of people’s lives — is uncertain and, too often, nonexistent.

The most recent setback for public access to court records came in June when the Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling that is at odds with democratic expectations and other rulings from federal courts. The case involved a request by media outlet The Colorado Independent that it be permitted access to four documents in an Arapahoe County District Court trial of defendant Sir Mario Owens, who’s on death row. The Colorado Supreme Court in affirming the lower court’s denial of access said that “while presumptive access to judicial proceedings is a right recognized under both the state and federal constitutions, neither the United States Supreme Court nor the Colorado Supreme Court has ever held that records filed with a court are treated the same way.”

In other words, the public has a First Amendment right to attend court proceedings, but, at least in Colorado, it doesn’t have a similar right to look at records of what happens in court. (The First Amendment right to free speech is relevant here, because members of the public can’t very well exercise free speech to criticize the government if they’re ignorant of what their government is up to.) As Steve Zansberg, the lawyer representing The Colorado Independent, wrote in response to the court, “The decision dramatically departs from the rest of the country in its application of a First Amendment principle that is critical for government transparency.”

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