You don't have to look far to find evidence that courts in the United States have long presumed the public has a right to know what goes on in the judicial system. A long list of precedents supports the notion that an open court system builds public trust and keeps judges and prosecutors in check.
So it is disturbing that federal courts nationwide, and specifically here in Utah, are considering adopting a rule that would shut down Internet access to any document that would reveal a defendant is cooperating with the government. Plea agreements would become hush-hush. No one would know who agreed to say what about whom, or for what reason.
This sudden push to close a part of the courthouse door comes because of a Web site (www.whosarat.com) that contains a list of informants and agents. The site has been active for four years and bills itself as a resource "for individuals and attorneys to post, share and request any and all information that has been made public at some point...pertaining to local, state and federal informants and law enforcement officers." Access to the Web site costs at least $7.99 for a one-week trial.
This has become a familiar theme for skittish public officials in the Information Age. Someone takes information that always has been public, puts it on a Web site, allowing relatively easy access, and government decides it has to remove another bit of freedom and accountability from public hands.
It happened a few years ago with motor vehicle records because, presumably, a stalker could use a license plate number to locate a person's address. Nobody was able to present evidence that access to such information had led to widespread abuses, but governments rushed to limit the information anyway.
The proposed court rule is more of the same chorus, with a new verse. An estimated 95 percent of all criminal cases end in plea bargains of some sort. These agreements then take the place of a trial, and the public needs to know why that happened and the terms of that agreement.
Of all the things a court may do, the granting of plea bargains has been the subject of intense political debate through the years. Some people feel they are offered too liberally, allowing criminals to serve lighter sentences than their crimes would warrant. Regardless of the merits of such arguments, restricting access to the records would serve only to heighten suspicions.
Under the proposed rule, the public still would have access to plea agreements by visiting a courthouse in person. But that is an unnecessary restriction in the age of the Internet.
As it now stands, if a court feels a defendant's safety is in danger, it may decide to close access to the records in that particular case. Attorneys for both sides can argue for or against the decision. That is how it should be in a free society. A rule that automatically presumes all plea deals should be secret, with no chance for anyone to mount a challenge, would be a horrible public policy.