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The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

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