Judicial Records and RTKL

Q: We want to review a criminal complaint filed with the county Court of Common Pleas as part of a murder prosecution. Is this record public under the Right-to-Know Law and should we file an RTKL request with the court?

A: The criminal complaint is a public record and should be available from the court, but the RTKL does not govern access to this type of record, and RTKL requests for this type of record are not appropriate.

As a general rule, records filed with, or relied upon, by the court as part of criminal and civil cases are considered judicial records. Judicial records are presumptively public under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, as well as common law. Once it is determined that the constitutional presumption of access applies to a judicial record, like a criminal complaint, public access can only be barred in narrow circumstances where the court finds:

  1. that closure is necessary to further a compelling governmental interest;
  2. the closure order is narrowly tailored to serve that interest; and
  3. that no less restrictive means are available to adequately protect that interest.

Each request for closure must be evaluated on an individual basis, and a court must make on-the-record findings to determine whether closure is appropriate. If a seal is ordered, the court must issue specific findings of fact supporting the order and the seal order itself is a public record. The applicable standard under a common law access theory where the constitutional presumption does not apply is slightly less stringent but requires the trial court to balance the presumption of openness against the circumstances warranting sealing of a record.

In addition to the constitutional and common law access requirements, the Public Access Policy of the Unified Judicial System also applies to records filed with the court. This policy requires certain information and records to be filed using a confidential information process and it makes confidential information subject to limited public access. It is important to remember that this policy is firmly rooted in, and must be applied consistent with, the constitutional presumption of access that generally applies to judicial records. Only those limits permitted by the policy, a specific statute, court rule or a court order may be imposed on public access to judicial records. The policy is augmented by a chart outlining other statutes that impact public access.

Judicial records related to criminal prosecutions like a criminal complaint are available from the court office in which they are filed, typically the magisterial district court or the Clerk of Courts office at the Common Pleas level.  In most cases, media requests made at the court filing office are simple and straightforward, and a formal written request is not necessary. If a request is complex or voluminous, the court may require a written request prior to access. You can learn more about the court’s public access policies, rules and access request forms here.  In addition to records available at a court filing office, docket sheets, court summaries, scheduling information and other records are also available on the Unified Judicial System case search system. The UJS also collects and provides access to electronic data about cases through data dashboards and through data access policies governing electronic case records.

The RTKL does not govern access to judicial records filed with the court in a criminal or civil case. The RTKL provides a means of access to the financial records of the court system, including salaries and budget information.  However, the court system has adopted Rule of Judicial Administration 509, which is similar to, but not the same as, the RTKL’s public access provisions regarding financial records of the court.  Citizens seeking access to the court’s financial records should file a Rule 509 request with the applicable court agency.

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