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House lawmaker calls for state to nix proposed access fee on public court records

(House Photography file photo)

Before the internet, court records were only available by going to the courthouse to review and, maybe, obtain copies.

Accessing these records is now much easier thanks to the Minnesota Court Records Online system that permits the viewing and downloading of documents through an online portal.

But Minnesota court officials have said they intend to impose an $8 fee for each record viewed or downloaded using the portal.

That’s going to negatively affect a lot of people, said Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove), but especially legal nonprofits helping clients. “That would be an enormous hit to their budgets.”

Imposing the fees, Robbins added, would also decrease transparency in government.

The Robbins-sponsored HF3041 would prevent the courts from imposing fees. It was laid over Thursday by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

“Minnesotans should not have to ration their research of court documents based upon their ability to afford access to public information,” said John Kavanagh, senior counsel at Minnesota Public Radio. “Our readers, our viewers, our listeners … expect us to be thorough and accurate in our reporting.”

Already financially struggling local and regional news outlets would be hardest hit by the proposed fee, he said, which would make it harder for them to report stories “critical to American democracy.”

“Imposing fees for viewing or downloading court documents would have an immediate chilling effect on the ability of reporters, and even the public at large, to follow the workings of Minnesota’s judicial system,” said Eric Wieffering, deputy managing editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

To illustrate the burdensome costs of an $8 fee, Wieffering cited a Star Tribune investigation on abuses committed by companies making financial settlements exploiting vulnerable accident victims. The reporting spanned more than two years and required examining more than 20,000 court records.

“Court records are public records,” he said. “They should be free to the public and the media, not only to people or institutions that can afford to pay for them.”

Sen. Andrew Mathews (R-Princeton) sponsors the companion, SF2953, which awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

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