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N.C. Supreme Court rules court database not subject to public records law

The N.C. Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals Friday in a public records case brought by LexisNexis against the Administrative Office of the Courts. LexisNexis was seeking access to the Automated Criminal Infractions System (ACIS) database. The Supreme Court found that a separate statute governs access to court system records so the Public Records Law does not apply, and the separate statute allows the court system to enter into exclusive contracts for access. 

On Friday, the N.C. Supreme Court issued an important opinion on access to court records that allows the Administrative Office of the Courts to restrict who can copy its databases. The decision overturns a Court of Appeals opinion that had said the databases were subject to the public records law and that the court system was the custodian of those records. The Supreme Court sidestepped the question of who is the proper custodian of the database, which had been the key question in the lower courts, and ruled that court records are not subject to the Public Records Law because there is another statute, N.C. G.S. 7A-109, that governs access to court files. 

Legal research group LexisNexis filed a public records request with both the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Wake County Clerk of Court in 2011 seeking access to copy the Automated Criminal Infractions System (ACIS) database. The database contains information about cases from across the state and each county's clerk of superior court is responsible for entering in files from their jurisdiction. The Administrative Office of the Courts asserted that it was not the custodian of the database, but that each clerk of court was the custodian of his or her portion of it. Then-Wake County Clerk of Court Lorrin Freeman responded that she was not the custodian of the database because her office did not maintain the database.  

There are public access terminals to the ACIS database in every courthouse in the state. The dispute between the Administrative Office of the Courts and LexisNexis revolves around the court system's ability to enter into nonexclusive contracts with companies to provide remote access. N.C.G.S. 7A-109(d) authorizes the court system to enter into contracts for access to its databases to help cover some of the costs of the system. LexisNexis was seeking access under the Public Records Law, which would have been free of charge. LexisNexis filed a public records lawsuit 

Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin ruled in favor of the Administrative Office of the Courts, finding that it was not the custodian and that access under the Public Records Law would run counter to N.C.G.S. 7A-109. A unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Public Records Law governed the case and that the Administrative Office of the Courts was in fact the custodian. The Supreme Court granted discretionary review. Justice Sam Ervin did not participate in the decision because he was a member of the Court of Appeals panel that heard the case. 

Because the decision did not decide the custodian question, it did not resolve similar situations where electronic records are entered by one person or agency of government and stored by another. For example, some government entities have asserted that the proper custodian of emails is the individual who created or received them, not the person in charge of managing the email system. 

The decision also reaffirms a previous ruling from Virmani v. Presbyterian Health System that N.C.G.S. 7A-109 governs access to court records. In the LexisNexis v. Administrative Office of the Courts decision published Friday, the court further clarified that when the Public Records Law and 7A-109 are in conflict, the court access statute will prevail because it deals specifically with court records. 

Jonathan Jones,
Staff
8/21/2015 12:50 PM