York County Clerk of Court’s whims vs. public’s rights

York Dispatch editorial board

All courts shall be open.

That's what it says — plain and unequivocal — in the Pennsylvania Constitution.

York County's courts, however, are increasingly closed to the public, an opaque box in which only gatekeepers have full access.

Dan Byrnes, the son of a former county commissioner who was elected as clerk of courts in 2019, handed down a series of policies that curtailed that right for all residents.

Daniel Byrnes, York County Clerk of Courts

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In years past, the office hosted a public computer where anyone could view case records at no cost. That terminal was removed, replaced with an increasingly convoluted system in which requesters were told to email or come to the front counter with a docket number and wait — sometimes days at a time — for a response.

Increasingly, the documents Byrnes' office provides are festooned with redactions that seldom make sense: names, addresses, even vehicle makes and models are excised from the public record.

Sometimes the requesters are told a public record is "impounded" — like a car with too many parking tickets — with no further explanation.

According to the the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania's public access policy, certain information can be restricted from public access — but the burden of those redactions fall on the attorneys and parties involved, not the clerk's office.

Quoting directly from the policy: "A court or custodian is not required to review any filed document for compliance with this section. A party’s or attorney’s failure to comply with this section shall not affect access to case records that are otherwise accessible."

A judge may decide to seal a particular record in a case for any number of good reasons, such as to protect the identity of a minor. But, in those instances, only specific records can be withheld — not the entire case file.

Here is just one example of the heavy redactions York County Clerk of Courts Dan Byrnes' office has provided The York Dispatch's reporters.

Last year, Byrnes began charging 65 cents per page for copies of court records. (For comparison, Staples currently charges 17 cents.)

He reversed course once it was pointed out to him that his policy violated the state one mandating that all courts charge no more than 25 cents per page for photocopying.

His new rate? The maximum: 25 cents.

The heavy redactions, however, continued.

As did the serpentine path requesters are forced to take in order to get copies electronically.

All of Byrnes' policies led this week — to The York Dispatch joining several other news outlets in filing a federal lawsuit against Byrnes, alleging that his office violated state and local statutes ensuring public access to court records.

Our justice system — indeed, all of democracy — is founded on the principles of openness and transparency. Open courts help ensure that this system is fair and accountable. All York County residents have a right to that and, if our collective trust in this institution falters, the whole system will start to crumble.

This decision to take Byrnes' office to court was not done in haste.

The lawsuit was filed after months of conversation between reporters, editors and the clerk's office. As journalists, we understand the pressures civil servants operate under. We approached the situation in good faith, with the belief that Byrnes would immediately correct these lapses in judgment once he was shown the error.

We still hope that will happen.

– This editorial has been updated with details of the settlement of the lawsuit.