Commentary: Refresher course on public records law in order for Clarkdale Magistrate Court
Accessing court records and other public records is the daily stock and trade for news reporters.
Compared to the stories we hear from colleagues around the state, reviewing such records is typically free from conflict here in the Verde Valley. From Jerome to Camp Verde, government officials most often understand the law and play by the rules.
That’s why we were caught off guard Tuesday when attempting to access a case file from the Clarkdale Magistrate Court. Court officials repeatedly asked why we wanted to review the file before ultimately removing one sheet of paper from the file and holding it up to the glass for the reporter to inspect.
When we subsequently registered a complaint with the court clerk, and reminded this public official to the realities of the Arizona Public Records Law, we were asked why we wanted to see the file, as if we have the burden of proof for viewing a legal public record.
It’s obvious the folks at the Clarkdale Magistrate Court – who, ironically, are in the business of administering the law – need to take a refresher course on what Arizona’s Public Records Law states and requires.
The most basic premise of the law is that “public records and other matters in the custody of any officer shall be open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.”
Further, the Arizona Supreme Court has defined “public record” as a record “made by a public officer in pursuance of a duty, the immediate purpose of which is to disseminate information to the public.”
As it applies to court records, Arizona Supreme Court Rule 123 is modeled directly after the state public records law, and reinforces that such records are “open to any member of the public for inspection or to obtain copies at all times during regular office hours at the office having custody of the records.”
Nowhere in the law does it require the person requesting such records explain why they want to see them.
It also bears emphasis that we clearly understand redaction policies and we expect court personnel to fully redact such records as the law allows. But for the record, our own policies about the propriety of what should and should not be published are more strict than what Arizona law requires. We go above and beyond what the law says we can and cannot do.
Given that reality, we do not think it too much to expect personnel at the Clarkdale Magistrate Court to simply do what is required under Arizona law.
Public records are just that … public.