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Parnell set to act on bill to make thousands of court records confidential

Dermot Cole

WEDNESDAY EVENING UPDATE: Gov. Parnell had not acted on SB 108 as of late Wednesday evening. He faces a Saturday deadline to sign or veto the bill.

ORIGINAL STORY

FAIRBANKS -- Gov. Sean Parnell is on the verge of vetoing or approving one of the final measures left over from the 2014 Legislature -- it would provide that thousands of court records every year would become confidential if charges are dismissed or a jury acquits.

A spokeswoman for Parnell said he is expected to take action Wednesday on SB 108, a bill championed by Eagle River Sen. Fred Dyson to make many court records in criminal cases secret 120 days after a case is dismissed or if the accused is acquitted. In situations where the dismissal takes place in exchange for a plea agreement on another case, the records would remain open to the public.

The governor's office said Parnell received 28 comments calling for a veto of the bill and 19 comments in support of the plan. There is no public signing ceremony planned on SB 108, Parnell's office said.

One of the most outspoken critics of the bill before the Legislature signed off on it was Taylor Winston, the executive director of the Alaska Office of Victims' Rights.

Winston, a former state prosecutor, said removing cases from public view would not serve the interests of Alaskans. The court system estimates that thousands of cases every year would qualify for confidential treatment after charges are dismissed or juries reach "not guilty" verdicts.

She said the bill would lead to a less transparent government and restrict freedom of information and freedom of speech. The bill passed the Senate 18-1 and the House 23-16.

One of the major concerns voiced by backers of the bill was that public records are available on the CourtView system to anyone, even in cases where people have been acquitted. Opponents argued that legislators were in effect telling members of the public that they are too dumb to tell the difference between charges and convictions.

The documents related to the cases would be public information to begin with, setting them apart from other court documents that are always kept confidential.

Veteran Anchorage attorney John McKay, who wrote the governor on behalf of Alaska Dispatch News, said complaints about the use of documents on CourtView could be dealt with directly with more positive results.

"If you don't trust Alaskans to read and understand general notices posted on CourtView advising users not to assume guilt from the fact a case has been filed, we could adopt more targeted and specific warnings for those categories of cases that would be affected by this bill, instead of removing these whole classes of court files from public view," McKay wrote.

He said the bill "tinkers with longstanding notions of government transparency and accountability and the historical record of our judicial branch."

The bill is the last one from the 2014 session awaiting action on the governor's desk. A second bill, one to make each Native language an official language of Alaska, has yet to be transmitted to the governor by House Speaker Mike Chenault. Until it is transmitted, it cannot be acted upon.

Dermot Cole can be reached at cole(at)alaskadispatch.com.