Clerk's office agrees to settle lawsuit over access complaints

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

The York County Clerk's office will compromise with local media on opening up access to public court documents, though with certain restrictions still in place.

Both sides agreed to changes as part of a settlement in a recent civil federal lawsuit filed by The York Dispatch and several other media companies against Clerk Dan Byrnes.

Changes include a narrower set of criteria for redacting information in documents, making key information available in cases deemed “impounded” and faster response times to provide requested documents.

York County Clerk of Courts Daniel Byrnes

Certain personal and private information about people in criminal case documents will remain restricted. In particular, the names of youths involved in physical or sexual abuse, as well as victims of human trafficking, will remain confidential under state laws, according to the agreement.

The settlement also calls for the clerk's office to pay nearly $7,000 in legal fees on behalf of the newspapers.

Byrnes, in a written statement, said the office was pleased “that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit has been resolved with all parties to the settlement agreement supporting and acknowledging that the Clerk of Courts has a legal and ethical duty to protect the identity of crime victims, particularly minors as specified in the laws of the commonwealth.”

Local news organizations were also satisfied with the agreement.

“We appreciate that the Clerk of Courts removed the unconstitutional barriers to timely public access to judicial records,” said Patrick Delany, Dispatch editor, “and we applaud his decision to provide his staff with the proper training to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Patrick DeLany

The lawsuit, filed in March in the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, alleged Byrnes exceeded his authority by redacting and impounding documents, as well as through delays in providing those documents after they were requested — situations, the media outlets alleged, that violated state and federal constitutional rights of access to criminal judicial records.

Byrnes denied the accusations, saying his office acted within the scope of state judicial policies.

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The settlement, which was agreed to Monday, narrowed the sections of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System that Byrnes’ office would follow for limiting access to protected information. The office will also only redact criminal charges under the state’s Clean Slate Act if they’ve been officially designated as sealed in the court case management system.

Sexual and physical abuse cases involving minors and victims of human trafficking will still be considered “impounded” by the clerk’s office, though information on them will now be provided.

When a case was deemed “impounded,” the clerk’s office would deny requests for those case documents.

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The settlement calls for the office to provide those documents now but allows for redactions of victims’ names and other protected or confidential information.

Byrnes also agreed to improve the timeliness of providing court documents when they’re requested. The settlement calls for making “all reasonable attempts” to respond within the same business day or by the next day, depending on the situation.

His office will also set a fee schedule for providing printed copies of documents at a rate of no higher than 25 cents per page.

“We’re really encouraged to see both parties reach an agreement on these core issues of access and timeliness,” said Sasha Dudding, an E.W. Scripps legal fellow and attorney for the plaintiffs.

As part of the settlement, staff at the clerk’s office and in newsrooms will undergo training on state public access policies.

The Dispatch joined the York Daily Record, Spotlight PA, the Lancaster-based LNP Media Group Inc. and WITF-FM radio in Harrisburg as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.