FARGO — It was a verbal order by the newly seated chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court that suspended web access to court records after reports surfaced of private information, including Social Security numbers and medical records, made readily accessible to the public.
The order by Chief Justice Jon Jensen was made late afternoon on Tuesday, Jan. 7. Court rules require parties filing documents with the court to use abbreviated versions of sensitive private information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates and credit card or financial account numbers.
The suspension was ordered because of news reports of private information becoming readily available. Court administrators also received a few complaints from the public, State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said Wednesday, Jan. 8
That rule has been in effect since March 1, 2009 — the beginning of the period of documents filed with North Dakota courts that briefly were public on the web under a new rule that took effect Jan. 1, but was suspended days later.
The expansion of easy remote access for court documents filed during that period was made with the presumption that lawyers and others were following the rule, Holewa said.
Because of that rule, and the presumption that parties filing documents were following the rule, court administrators did not attempt to screen the estimated 1.6 million pages of documents filed since the privacy rule took effect — an undertaking that simply isn’t practical, Holewa said.
“The assumption is that they would be compliant with the rule,” she said. The rule protecting privacy in court filings also allows for parties to file sensitive documents under seal, or to seek a protective order from a judge.
“A party or nonparty making a filing with the court is solely responsible for ensuring that protected information does not appear on the filing,” the rule specifies.
The documents have always been available in paper form in the court where they were filed, or accessible electronically from state and municipal court clerk offices in North Dakota, Holewa said.
“The court didn’t change what was public or what wasn’t public,” she said. “All they changed is how they get access to it.”
That public access in courthouses continues. But the rule allowing easy remote access outside courthouses will remain suspended for an undetermined time while court officials review the situation to determine what should be done, Holewa said.
Software is available to identify “structured numbers,” including Social Security numbers and credit card numbers, but the software was deemed “prohibitively expensive” when court officials assumed the rule governing privacy in court filings was being followed, she said.
Court administrators will work with information technology professionals to see what further steps can be taken to protect private information, Holewa said, yet make court documents readily accessible electronically.
“The court is still committed to eliminating those artificial barriers of distance and expense,” Holewa said. But justices also must protect private information.
“The court’s engaged in this balancing act — to ease access but at the same time protect confidential information,” she said. “It’s a difficult balancing act.”