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York County clerk sued over public records access

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

The York Dispatch and several other media outlets are suing the York County clerk of courts, alleging that the office repeatedly violated state and federal law ensuring access to public records.

Daniel Byrnes, York County Clerk of Courts

In the lawsuit, the companies allege that York County Clerk Daniel Byrnes’ office unconstitutionally delayed access to court documents, improperly redacted information and created various other barriers to information.

“These access restrictions that we’re challenging have been going on for months,” said Sasha Dudding, an E.W. Scripps legal fellow and attorney working on the case.

The suit calls on the federal court in Harrisburg to put a stay on alleged violations of the First Amendment of the U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions. The public has rights to access judicial records in criminal cases, the case argues, alleging the clerk’s office interfered with those rights through redactions, delays and apparent unilateral decisions to “impound” certain cases.

Byrnes denied the allegations Monday.

“The York County Clerk’s Office flatly rejects the unfounded claims made in this frivolous lawsuit,” Byrnes said in a written statement. “The Clerk’s office has balanced the needs of the press and public with the privacy rights of individuals including victims involved in criminal cases.”

York County Judicial Center

Byrnes' office implemented a new policy in March 2021 to start charging reporters and editors for copies of records, setting fees at 65 cents per page for paper copies, which exceeded the 25-cent statewide judicial policy, and $17 for electronic copies as a “CD-ROM” fee, the lawsuit describes.

Several media associations questioned the move, and a short time later, the office removed Laserfiche software — which allowed for viewing documents digitally — from a public access area of the judicial center downtown. Office staff were also directed to personally handle requests for access to judicial records, while another policy called for implementing delays in order to redact information, according to the lawsuit.

The document fee was lowered to the state guideline about a month later, and media members were reminded copies of documents could be emailed without charge.

But the redactions continued.

Daniel Byrnes holds his daughter Charlotte, 2, as he was sworn in as York County Clerk of Courts during a ceremony at the York County Administrative Center Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Oaths of office were administered to county and court officials. Bill Kalina photo

The lawsuit argues Byrnes’ office has exceeded state standards for withholding confidential information. Staff have also followed directions to block out details such as names in documents without orders from judges, though state judicial policy only has a route for courts and people involved in cases to restrict information. 

“Defendant and employees of his office regularly redact judicial records without having the authority to do so, and despite the fact that no court has ordered it,” the lawsuit states.

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The case cites how 32 of the 42 records requested by reporters between Sept. 7 and Sept. 30, 2021, had redactions. In the process, six of the documents were received on the same day they were requested, and only one came back the same day without any redactions.

Situations that month, as well as during other periods in 2021 and early 2022, saw reporters wait hours or sometimes days for documents. When they received the documents, the information would be rife with redactions not considered confidential by the state, according to the suit.

On top of those incidents, reporters were also sometimes barred from viewing certain documents after Byrnes’ office designated them as “impounded.” Cases involving sexual or physical crimes against minors were typically ones the office withheld under the “impounded” tag, the suit describes, while pointing out that state law only requires the victim’s name to remain confidential.

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The suit also alleges cases are impounded without court orders or authorization from judges to seal them. Notably, docket entries, showing cases marked as “impounded,” were filed by Byrnes. Had a judge given such an order, they would be filed as “Court of Common Pleas — York County,” the lawsuit shows.

“No other statute or rule authorizes defendant’s extrajudicial practice of ‘impounding’ cases,” the suit states while calling the designation “unique” to the clerk’s office. “The Pennsylvania Code’s references to ‘impounding’ largely involve land and physical property.”

Byrnes denied creating access restrictions beyond the state judicial system’s scope.

"During my tenure the Clerk of Courts Office has actually expanded free public access to the public, especially to those facing a financial barrier to information,” he said. “This office’s decisions on these matters are in accordance with criteria set by the courts and guidance provided by state.”

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The lawsuit's counts argue that the policy of the clerk’s office to redact and impound court records, as well as delay access, violates the First Amendment. The case also bundles those allegations into requests for the federal court to preliminarily and permanently order a halt to the policies.

“It all goes into the bigger issue of constitutionally protected access being unlawfully denied to journalists and also the public throughout central Pennsylvania,” Dudding said.

In addition to The York Dispatch and the York Daily Record, the other plaintiffs in the case are Spotlight PA, Lancaster-based LNP Media Group Inc. and WITF-FM radio in Harrisburg.

— Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.