Missouri Supreme Court Takes Solid Step Toward Greater Transparency
The run-up to the July 4 holiday weekend featured a torrent of positive developments in Jefferson City. We’ve already talked about the planned adoption of a massive income tax reform by the state’s executive and legislative branches. But earlier that week, the state’s judicial branch also broke some good policy news. The public will have extensive access to documents filed in the state’s court system from their own personal electronic devices, starting next year. According to the state supreme court’s press release:
“With the assistance of Missouri’s Court Automation Committee, a statutory entity comprised of members from all three branches of government, the judiciary has been working toward this goal for a number of years,” Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson said. “Today’s orders will ensure court documents that are currently open to the public will be truly accessible to the public. These improvements will fundamentally change the way individuals access public court documents, while balancing the need to protect confidential information and ensure the overall security and reliability of our underlying case management system.”
The rule changes will not go into effect until July 1, 2023, partially due to the constitutionally required waiting period for certain court rules. The waiting period also gives the Court the opportunity to work with The Missouri Bar to educate attorneys, court staff, parties or anyone else offering documents for filing in any Missouri state court to keep unnecessary confidential information out of otherwise public documents and, when confidential information must be included, to redact that information to protect it from disclosure.
Giving the public access to the actual documents filed in Missouri courts may seem like a narrow transparency victory, and in some respects, it is. The average Missourian will probably only take advantage of the new document transparency system a handful of times in their lives; for example, they might want to closely monitor a local court case that may impact their own lives, but may not get the scrutiny or news coverage of higher-profile litigation.
Yet enabling robust oversight of government functions, even if used intermittently at the individual level, is a key good government reform. The purpose of transparency initiatives like this one isn’t to push every Missourian to constantly watch every function of government; ain’t nobody got time for that. But such reforms empower individuals and communities with the opportunity to oversee the governing system that serves them when they do have concerns.
In general, government should have to demonstrate why certain documents can’t automatically be made public rather than require the public to ask first, as is generally required under the state’s Sunshine Law. The state court system’s shift in policy is a positive step in this rethink of what government transparency should really look like.