Legal Hotline: MDJ redactions

  • Aug 18, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  A recently-elected magisterial district judge (MDJ) has instructed his staff to redact all victim information from court records in his office.  We typically don’t publish victim information, but we do use it as part of the newsgathering process.  Isn’t victim information in court records public?

A:  Yes.  Victim information in court records is public, although there is a statute that protects the identities of minor victims of physical or sexual assault.

Judicial records, such as those on file with an MDJ, are presumptively public and must be accessible to the general public, unless a court has ordered a record sealed for good cause shown on the record.  The presumption of access can only be overcome if the party seeking closure can show the need for secrecy outweighs the right of public access. Each request for closure must be evaluated on an individual basis, and a court must conduct a hearing, on the record, to determine whether closure is appropriate, and issue specific findings supporting any closure. Blanket policies that restrict access to an entire class of information are not appropriate.  In addition, MDJs are not courts of record, and are therefore unable to issue ‘sealing’ orders.

Note however, that 42 Pa.C.S. §5988 prohibits court personnel from releasing the identity of minor (under age 18) victims of physical or sexual assault and there is a separate statute that limits access to the names of alleged victims of sex trafficking. These statutes ultimately infringe on the constitutional right to access court records and as such, they must be narrowly construed and only limit access to identities, not entire court records.  

As a general rule, only the following documents can be withheld by MDJs and their staff:

1. documents that have been sealed by an order from a higher court (common pleas or appellate);

2. the identities of minor victims of physical or sexual assault, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.§5988;

3. unexecuted search warrants and their supporting documentation, pursuant to PA Rule of Criminal Procedure No. 212;

4. unexecuted arrest warrants and their  and supporting documentation for 72 hours after issuance if the Commonwealth has requested and shown good cause for delay.  After 72 hours, the records are public unless sealed by a higher court upon a showing of good cause.  Pursuant to Rules of Criminal Procedure 513 and 513.1;  and 

5. the case files of minors charged with a summary offenses, pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. §6336(g). and 42 Pa.C.S. §6307(c).

All other records filed in an MDJ’s office are public and must be provided upon request, in compliance with the Public Access Policy of Unified Judicial System governing paper records of the magisterial district courts.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your newspaper’s attorney or the Legal Hotline with questions at (717) 703-3080.

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