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W. Pa. judge limits access to online civil records

September 17, 2013
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A western Pennsylvania county judge has barred online access to civil court records when cases are in trial so juries can't read documents and possibly be influenced by information they're not supposed to see.

Common Pleas Judge Terrence O'Brien, the administrative judge for the county's civil courts, issued the order last month after a request by the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ( ) reported Tuesday.

The documents themselves can still be accessed by reporters and others during trial, but only by contacting the judge overseeing the case.

"The potential for prejudice to the parties outweighed the minimal restriction to public access," O'Brien said. "I balanced the two principles, and this is the best I could do."

John Gismondi, a personal injury attorney who heads the trial lawyers' academy, said smartphones make it easier than ever for jurors to access online court documents.

Jurors are told not to consider any information except documents and testimony offered in evidence, but some disregard judges' orders and look up court documents on their own which could contain arguments, facts or even settlement agreements that jurors are not supposed to consider during their deliberations.

O'Brien cited one case in which a juror accessed a court docket to learn that a defendant had settled with one of the plaintiff's in a lawsuit. The juror shared that information with others, and the panel planned to subtract that amount from their award to another plaintiff, only to have the case settle before that could happen.

"How often that happens is anybody's guess," O'Brien said.

Paula Knudsen, legal affairs director for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said restricting online access to documents isn't a good idea and that the courts should focus on sanctioning jurors who break the rules.

But O'Brien said such sanctions are rarely used and often not effective. He recalls a juror's daily pay being withheld due to misconduct, but in Allegheny County that doesn't amount to much: jurors get $9 daily for their first three days of service and $25 a day thereafter.

Gismondi said the change isn't significant because the public and the press can still access the documents just like they did before such papers were recorded online.

But Knudsen said that's not realistic because, "Practically speaking, it's difficult to get back to the judge's chambers."



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