The Ottumwa Courier


February 20, 2013

Access to documents important

Our Opinion

OTTUMWA — Iowa courts have made strides toward openness over the years. They allow great latitude for media coverage of trials and have, in recent years, begun efforts to reach out to people and ensure they understand how the courts work.

This is good; Iowans’ situation is much better than in many states and light years ahead of the federal government’s attitude on courts.

There are things the courts should be doing better, though.

Access to court documents is a good example. Court filings are, as a rule, open for public examination through the county offices. But there are times the judge needs time to review the file and, in many cases, the judge isn’t in the same county as the case.

Denying judges those documents is clearly unacceptable. But it’s also unacceptable for those documents to be inaccessible to the public for days or weeks at a time.

There is a solution. While the federal courts fail on camera access, they do documents well.

Federal courts use PACER to allow access to documents. It’s free if you view less than $10 worth of documents in a quarter, equivalent to about 100 pages. The fees are reasonable if you go beyond that.

Iowa should take steps to create a similar system. It has been discussed before, but it’s time for the state to quit dragging its heels.

It will cost money, so the Legislature must get its act together as well as the courts. But this can and should be done.

Iowa courts deserve praise for their openness. The functional inaccessibility of records while judges examine them is a blemish on an otherwise outstanding record.

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