Supreme Court mulls more privacy in protection order cases

By DARCIE MORAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — After some courts failed to comply with federal law, a proposed rule by the Michigan’s Supreme Court aims to stop courts from posting individuals’ personal information on the Internet.

“The point of it is to protect individuals that might be the victims of stalking or other crimes,” said John Nevin, communications director for the court.

But some judges worry the new rule is redundant and too vague.

Currently, a federal law shields those with protection orders from having their information put on the Internet, Nevin said.

But Nevin said the proposed rule would draw more attention and reinforce the federal law. Many courts publish information on the Web.

Judges issue protection orders to prevent stalking, harassment, threats or harm to individuals.

Kalamazoo County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Gorsalitz said while local court clerks might know not to publish personal protection order documents online, many other case files might still include the same information. He said the proposed rule is unclear about whether these other documents would be kept from the Internet as well.

The issue arose last year when lawyers and others recognized some courts were not following the federal law, said Debi Cain, executive director for the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board.

Cain said she believes the non-compliance was accidental.

“Easy electronic access to information is a Catch-22,” Cain said, explaining that access can be both helpful to victims looking for resources and hurtful when it aids abusers looking for them.

Mary Lovik, a staff attorney for the board, was unaware of problems with posting personal protection order information online.

However, she said there have been instances where victims of domestic violence filing for divorce were put at risk by online documentation by courts. She said lawyers noticed the filing online and offered their services to abusers before the victim could inform them.

She said having the information online could also mean potential abusers can more easily identify where victims, are based on where they filed petitions.

The rule would not prevent public documents from being viewed at a court.

Gorsalitz wrote the single opposing comment as president of the Michigan Judges Association.

The State Bar’s board of commissioners, its Family Law Section and the Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board support the proposed rule change.

Nevin said the Supreme Court sent reminders to Michigan’s lower courts about the identical federal law last summer.

The federal law, included in the memo sent out by State Court Administrator Chad Schmuker, does not speak specifically about other documents.

Oakland and Macomb counties were two jurisdictions that had to switch their publishing policies after the memo was sent, said Jennifer Howden, Macomb Circuit Court’s chief deputy county clerk.

Prior to the memo, Howden said she was unaware of the federal law. She said the court typically takes direction from the Supreme Court.

Howden said her court wasn’t sure which documents and what information needed to be excluded from online posting. Now, the court does not include any documentation regarding protection orders online.

The Kent and Emmet county circuit courts have not put this information online, according to circuit court staff.

A hearing about the rule change is scheduled in May in Lansing, Nevin said.

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