This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
The business of governmental privacy
One of the most frustrating parts of finding minor federal/state cases are gathering the official case files. Some states have an impressive amount of court records on file for free such as Arizona, California, or Illinois. Other states like Idaho or Tennessee make it seem like their state has never heard a case in one of their courts. For example, Alabama charges $10 for each state court record that is searched. Although some believe that not having every piece of our personal lives broadcasted online is good, the lack of information is not useful for the project.
However some authors like Winn (2004), have stated that “courts are the institutions that process information and translate it into the exercise of power by rendering judgements”. The past abuse of power from the judicial power is what makes understanding the process of how this judgement is passed important. Throughout the project, I have gotten frustrated with the lack of information provided from the government.
Recently, one of the cases that I encountered trouble with was Michael Wayne Bobo. Bobo was one of the defendants in a “Sovereign Citizens” case. Although he was mentioned in several news articles, he was not one of the primary defendants. Therefore, it was extremely difficult to find his official court documents. One might wonder: “Is the case pending?” or “Maybe his case didn’t go to court!” The case happened in 2008 so the odds of the case being pending is very unlikely.
Using other databases, the name of the case was found and added so there is a record of his case going to court. After further research, the case was found in the Alabama courts website with the $10 charge for its documents. Throughout working on this project, I have been so shocked about having to pay for documents that are considered public record. As a taxpayer, shouldn’t I have access to court documents that are deemed public? The answer is that no one wants their private moments aired out in the public.
Fearing Uncle Sam knowing every detail of your personal life is not an unwarranted feeling. In our democratic systems, there is this balance of privacy and security that keeps society functioning well. However, the maintenance of this balance is extremely difficult to achieve. There are groups of individuals that fear government’s role on their personal life and since court records and other government records could be used to gather information about individuals. The excess of personal information being available on the Internet could lead to an increase in discrimination in the job searching process, identity theft, and consumer profiling (Barber, G., 2006). Those who have this viewpoint in mind argue that the government’s job is not to disclose our personal data but to hide it from the wicked hands of the electronic age. However, in order to maintain order and learn more about the system we live in, there must be some tradeoffs. I understand that federal records may hold some more “value” when it comes to who should be able to see them since after all, it was important enough to handled by a federal judge. However, a $10 charge on state documents is absurd.
I believe the high cost to access what should be public record limits the information that the public receives. Taxpayers should have the availability to all the information that goes through our court system. Could that be an infringement of privacy? Yes. Would that appease some of the public’s concerns that the government is hiding information from us? Also yes. Our privacy has become a business from the government to the private sector. Everyone wants to have their hands on data about the citizens of the world. Maybe, we should let them.
Barber, G. (2006). Personal information in government records: Protecting the public interest in privacy. Saint Louis University Public Law Review, 25(1), 63-122.
Winn, P. A. (2004). Online court records: Balancing judicial accountability and privacy in an age of electronic information. Washington Law Review, 79(1), 307-330.