Open up court administrative matters to freedom of information requests

The public should have a transparent look at how its money is spent.

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The Illinois Supreme Court building.

Sun-Times Media

The Illinois court system spends tax money. It signs contracts for everything from electronic filing systems to janitorial services.

The public should be able to have a transparent look at how that money is spent. It should be able to see which procedures are in place to protect private information, and whether those procedures are carefully followed. The public should be able to see whether court clerk offices are operating efficiently.

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But, unlike the executive and legislative branches of government, the court system need not respond to Freedom of Information requests. It’s time to lower the gavel on that.

The 1984 Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens, news media and others to request a look at government documents, does not mention the judiciary. But the courts have interpreted the law to mean the judiciary is not a “public body” for purposes of FOIA requests.

In short, the courts are keeping the public in the dark about how they spend taxpayer money and engage in other administrative activities — for no good reason.

On. Feb. 9, state Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II, D-Chicago, introduced a bill that would make it clear the courts are a “public body.” The bill exempts records related to court cases and court decision-making.

Such a bill might run into a thorny separation-of-powers issue, with one branch of government, the Legislature, telling another branch, the courts, what to do.

A better solution would be for the Illinois Supreme Court to implement this reform on its own. That would avoid the separations-of-power issue and pre-empt any effort to water down the legislation, as happened last year with a bill that would have defined circuit court clerk offices as public bodies subject to FOIA requests.  

No one is talking about digging into private court documents or interfering in the realm of judicial decision-making, which should both remain private. It’s just about making government operations more transparent.

The Illinois Supreme Court does release annual reports with some statistical and financial information about courts on all levels. Circuit court clerks are required to submit annual financial audits and caseload information.

That information is helpful, but it is not enough.

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Forty-four other states permit disclosure of data regarding administrative court functions, either through a freedom of information law, a statute that covers judges or a rule imposed by the courts, according to the Civic Federation. Illinois, the last state to enact a freedom of information law, needs to catch up.

It’s time to put a little more transparency on the docket.

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