November Editorial Winner

Protecting John Smith

Ted Streuli, The Journal Record

The Oklahoma Supreme Court justices will soon decide whether to further restrict access to public information. We understand the court's concerns, but the proposed rule needs extensive work. As it now reads, it is much too broad and could create a mudslide of unanticipated consequences.
The proposed rule would keep some personal information out of the public domain. Sensitive information, such as Social Security and driver's license numbers, would be represented only by their final four digits in court filings. The names of minors would also be disguised.
Those ideas would protect people without creating a tsunami of new problems.
But the rule changes as proposed would also shorten birth dates to just the year and addresses to the city of residence. Those pieces of information are critical to avoiding confusion regarding the identity of the person involved in a civil or criminal proceeding. While those limitations may protect one person from identity theft, the ambiguity created would just as readily instigate severe problems for someone who has the misfortune to share a name and birth year. There is more than one John Smith in Oklahoma City who was born in 1965, for example. If one were to be charged with rape, it would be impossible to know whether it was the John Smith who lives next door or the one who lives across town. It would also be difficult to determine if the John Smith trying to get you to invest in a new venture is the same John Smith being sued by a host of creditors.
The proposal suggests that litigants could file two versions of their pleadings, a full copy for the court and a redacted copy for the public. That system is rife with potential for errors and abuse. Further, the proposed rule change would allow anyone filing a document to ask that it be sealed.
The wording on that point is vague and does not address the new circumstances under which a judge would grant such a request, leaving the interpretation open to the argument that all such requests must be granted. Pulling a curtain around our justice system is contrary to America's principles; we have an open, public format for excellent reasons, primarily because it protects the innocent.
We empathize with those worried about identity theft, but the proposal before the court would be killing a fly with a bazooka

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