- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - The Maine court system reversed itself on sealing some court records after pressure from media groups, officials said Wednesday.

Dismissed criminal cases that had been ordered sealed will remain public records as they have in the past, according to a spokeswoman for the Maine court system.

Media organizations led by the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston and attorney Sigmund Schutz from the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition objected after learning that court officials had begun sealing the court records last fall with no public notice.

The matter came to light thanks to reporting on a manslaughter case in which the newspaper’s executive editor, Judy Meyer, noticed that the entire court file had disappeared. It turns out the case was dismissed after the defendant died, but the court declined to confirm the dismissal.

The Associated Press joined in the action, along with the Maine Press Association, prominent newspapers and TV stations, and First Amendment groups.

“While pleased that the process will be reversed and dismissed files will come back into the public view, it took six weeks and enormous pressure from dozens of media companies and public access advocates to convince court administrators of this need,” Meyer said.

Meyer said shielding court documents goes against the public’s right to know what happens in courts. She said that even those arrested with a crime could have been harmed under the policy because they would’ve been unable to prove that charges had been dismissed.

Mary Ann Lynch, spokeswoman for the courts, said the idea was to protect the interests of people whose charges were dismissed because an arrest record, even without a conviction, “can be a lifelong barrier to employment, school and other life activities.”

But she said a blanket process for dismissing such cases was not supported by federal case law.

“We have concluded that such court records should, under the First Amendment, remain open for public access and inspection,” she said.

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