N.C. Court of Appeals: Court database is public record, court system must make it available
In 2011 LexisNexis sought to copy a court records database controlled by the Administrative Office of the Courts. AOC claimed it was not the custodian of the database and declined to turn it over. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of LexisNexis.
In 2011 LexisNexis asked for a copy of the North Carolina court system's Automated Criminal/Infraction System, commonly referred to as ACIS, from both the Administrative Office of the Courts and the clerk of superior court for Wake County. The system can be used to check criminal records from across the state as well as the outcomes of specific cases.
The database is maintained by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The information in the database is entered by the court clerks in all 100 counties across the state. The Administrative Office of the Courts claimed it was not the custodian of the records in the database because that belongs to the clerks in each county. The clerk in Wake County did not have access to the entire database in order to provide a copy to LexisNexis.
LexisNexis filed a lawsuit. Superior Court Judge James Hardin ruled in favor of the Administrative Office of the Courts, finding that the agency was not the custodian of the record, and that providing a copy of the database would run counter to a section of state law that allows the agency to enter into contracts with third-party vendors to make the database remotely accessible.
In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Linda Stephens, a panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals rejected the Administrative Office of the Court's arguments and reversed the trial court's ruling. Stephens wrote that the database is a separate public record from the records created by the individual clerks of court across the state and that the Administrative Office of the Courts is the custodian of that record. Stephens' opinion was joined by judges Martha Geer and Sam Ervin IV.
Read the full court of appeals opinion here.