Legislature may scrap fees to obtain Minnesota state court documents

13 April 2022

Minnesota legislators are one step closer to wiping out an $8 fee for retrieving public state court documents online and in person.

Bills to strike that requirement — either for obtaining documents in-person or via the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s new online records system — made it into both the House and Senate versions of a sweeping public safety spending package. The proposals have yet to pass either chamber, but the progress marks a rare point of agreement during a contentious session for criminal justice policy.

“Minnesotans have a right to access documents that pertain to their personal cases, as well as a right to transparency in their government,” said state Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, the lead House sponsor, in a recent statement. “Removing these court document fees will preserve the ability to access official records and transparency in our state.”

The legislative push was triggered by the impending end of a Judicial Branch pilot project that launched its online court records portal last year. Since its March 2021 debut, the Minnesota Court Records Online site has made most state court documents available to download for free while staff ready a system for processing payments.

The final phase of that pilot, due later this year, would reintroduce the $8 fee to download copies of uncertified court documents as required by state law. Throughout the pilot, the branch has continued to charge for retrieving documents in person.

Judicial Branch spokeswoman Jodi Boyne said more than 5 million documents have been downloaded since the web portal launched last year. She said the fee for uncertified documents accessed online would apply only to documents longer than one page, and about two-thirds of documents available online would not be subject to the fee.

Jeff Shorba, the Judicial Branch’s state court administrator, said the legislative proposals to eliminate the fees “do not impact court operations financially.” Revenue collected from the fee is deposited into the state’s general fund and does not go to the branch.

“We have asked that the fee structure be consistent and straightforward and not cause any undue hardship to the public or courthouse staff,” Shorba said. “The Minnesota Legislature has the authority to clarify or change the fee to purchase copies of court documents. The Judicial Branch will implement what the Legislature decides. We hope for a timely resolution so as not to delay the final development phase of Minnesota Court Records Online.”

Members of the state’s journalism and legal communities alike have urged the Legislature to eliminate the fees. Representatives of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Minnesota Broadcasters Association and Minnesota Public Radio warned in a letter to lawmakers that the fee “would inflate our costs and would suppress our ability to fully report on the important issues dealt with by the court system, especially in criminal cases.”

The Minnesota State Bar Association supports eliminating the fee. Ron Elwood, supervising attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, added in a letter of support that free access to court documents would be “especially helpful” for attorneys and clients in rural Minnesota.

“While a small fee may seem to be of little consequence to some, to our clients who struggle financially it can be a high barrier,” he wrote.

Eric Wieffering, deputy managing editor for the Star Tribune, testified in favor of the Minnesota House and Senate proposals earlier this year.

“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,” Wieffering told legislators last month.

The branch collected an average of $628,205 a year in uncertified copy fees from 2018 to 2020. Those revenues began plummeting in 2021, with $459,543 collected that year and just $330,876 expected to be taken in this year. Legislative researchers could not pinpoint the source of the revenue drop but noted that it was reasonable to assume that the dip was at least partly attributable to online document availability.

The proposals have faced no opposition to date. Sen. Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican who chairs the Senate’s public safety and judiciary committee, did not see a significant hit to state revenue if the fees were eliminated, calling it “the proverbial spit in the ocean.”

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Roseville DFLer who chairs the House’s judiciary committee, said last month that making sure public documents remain accessible is “incredibly important” because “they aren’t actually public if nobody can actually see them.”

In the Senate, Sens. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, and Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, sponsored legislation to end the fees for online and in-person documents, respectively.

“These are public systems,” Latz said. “The documents are public and it seems to me that they ought to be accessible to the public with the lowest barrier possible.”

Meanwhile, pending legislation in Congress would eliminate the fee for downloading court documents via the federal judiciary’s electronic court records system. The Open Courts Act of 2021 would end the requirement that users pay 10 cents a page — up to $3 per document — to download federal court filings.

This post was originally published on this site

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