Minnesota Judicial Branch calls criticism of court record access ‘outrageous’

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Monday, the Minnesota Judicial Branch responded to criticism by a group of private defense attorneys who claimed last week they do not have equal remote computer access as their government counterparts, public defenders and prosecutors.

The defense attorneys told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they have not had the same computer access to court records and case files since 2007, but could navigate around the inconvenience by accessing those records at courthouses.

However, with the COVID-19 outbreak, restrictions have been placed on courthouses.

The group of private defense attorneys asked Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea for the same remote computer access, but Gildea issued a letter telling the attorneys the state could not accommodate their request.

Some Minnesota criminal defense attorneys say state court system ‘unfair’ during COVID-19 restrictions

The attorneys are now considering filing a federal lawsuit claiming they cannot adequately defend their clients without the same remote computer access as prosecutors.

Minnesota State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba said the assertions made by the group of defense attorneys are without merit and misleading.

"I would say it’s outrageous and in my mind wildly inaccurate," said Shorba. "Attorneys continue to have all remote access options they had prior to the pandemic and to suggest otherwise is entirely false."

KSTP asked Shorba if the defense attorneys did not clearly understand how the computer system works, or if their position on equal access was simply wrong.

"I think it is wrong because I think the remote access is still available," shorba said. "Going to the public terminal, and looking at the public terminal, is just one of a multitude of ways to access documents."

Assistant Washington County Attorney Marc Berris is among a growing list of prosecutors who agree with their private defense attorney counterparts and publicly called for change.

"I think it needs to change," Berris said. "Obviously, attorneys employed by the government have unfettered access to court files and the documents that are in them and private practice attorneys do not. I would say it is both unequal and unfair."

Berris told KSTP, in his opinion, this lopsided access for the prosecution and the government side of the courts is a serious imbalance he thinks needs to be immediately addressed to protect the rights of criminal defendants.

"It could affect their freedom, it could affect their employment and it could affect their housing, " Berris said. "It is that serious."

The group of private attorneys who wrote the letter to Gildea told KSTP they will likely decide this week whether to file a federal lawsuit to resolve the dispute.