James Holmes attorneys' fight to seal public records -- and a damning new report
A new report on access to public records in Colorado scolds state agencies for excessive fees, failing to put records online so more citizens can make use of them, and for "pre-digital age thinking." On the same day, attorneys for James Holmes file a motion in the Aurora theater shootings case, asking the court to remove from its website all filings in the case and seal transcripts of hearings, contending that easy access to such information imperils their client's right to a fair trial. Nice timing, guys.
The juxtaposition highlights the gulf between theory and practice in the way Colorado's open records laws really work -- or don't work. The state's provisions for wide-ranging and prompt access to government information date back to 1969, among the oldest such laws in the country. (The federal Freedom of Information Act dates back to 1966.) But over the years a number of formal revisions to the laws and informal shifts in policy, sometimes ostensibly in the name of greater "transparency," have made it increasingly difficult to obtain not-so-public documents from state agencies in a timely and cost-effective manner.
Although hardly alone in their obstruction, the judicial branch has been particularly keen on frustrating the intentions of the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA. In recent years, as we've previously reported, fiats from the Colorado Supreme Court and individual judicial districts have restricted, suppressed, or required cumbersome redaction of numerous types of records, from criminal to divorce to probate cases. This has been done in the name of protecting "personal information" from supposed identity thieves and the like; but it also ends up shielding the abuses of the system, such as the predatory actions of unscrupulous guardians and conservators in probate court, from public scrutiny.
From the cover of the Colorado Ethics Watch report.
The new report from Colorado Ethics Watch, 21st Century Sunshine: Modernizing CORA, complains that the state lags far behind many others in making basic records (such as budget information or even how to file an open records request) available online. Colorado recently got an "F" from the Center for Public Integrity for its public records policies, in part because of its baffling array or research fees and other costs that can be assessed and effectively discourage public record requests.
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