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Missouri Law Redacts Nearly All Names in Court Files


A new Missouri law passed last year deletes the names of victims and witnesses, including police officers, in state court documents ranging from pleadings to opinions to orders, the Gateway Journalism Review reports.


Press organizations in Missouri believe the redactions could impede their members’ work; Eugene Volokh, a nationally known libertarian legal commentator, called the law “a very serious problem;” and former federal judge and victim advocate Paul G. Cassell, said he didn’t know of any law like it in the nation and that it seemed “difficult to justify … without narrowing it to circumstances where good reason may well exist for privacy (such as juveniles and sex-assault cases),” according to reporters Ted Gest and William H. Freivogel.


Missouri has become the “State of Unnamed Persons,” wrote Mark Sableman, a partner at Thompson Coburn and media lawyer who has pressed the Missouri Supreme Court to hold back on implementing the law. Opinions from the state’s appeals court, Sableman notes, are filled with status words (e.g., “Victim”), relationships (e.g., “Victim’s sister”; “Girlfriend”; “Uncle”), initials (e.g., “D.V. and E.C”), profession (e.g., “Nurse”), and office (e.g., “[State Attorney]” and “[Trial Counsel]”).  Even the names of prosecutors and trial lawyers are redacted, he said, as are the names of murder victims, who have no right of privacy.


Without names, witness accounts can be confusing, as seen from selected files of the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District.


For Gary Jolley, who’s serving a 30-year sentence for physically abusing members of his large family, one paragraph within his October decision reads: “On April 29, 2022, an evidentiary hearing was held. S.W., A.B., and C.F. testified. S.W. and A.B., Jolley’s daughters, testified that while Jolley was in jailI some of Jolley’s family members who testified against him at trial, including C.D., sold items of Jolley’s property and kept the proceeds. S.W. and A.B. testified that C.D. used up to three years’ worth of Jolley’s social security disability payments for her own use. S.W. and A.B. stated they were never contacted by Jolley’s attorney, but they both would have testified at trial if they were contacted.”


In another losing appeal, in November, Kurtis C. Watkins alleged “ineffective assistance of trial counsel for failing to call Witness Friend, Witness J, and CoDefendant as witnesses at trial.”


The new law stems from remarks made in 2017 by then-Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge, concerned about the growing number of online court documents, called for legislative action, noting that many statutes governing confidentiality were enacted at a time when “public” meant available in paper form at a clerk’s office, not instantly available to anyone anywhere. 


But SB103, the 2023 omnibus bill that prompted the nameless files, contains no mention of redaction. The state Press-Bar Commission also points out that the language of the law specifically states, “The Missouri Supreme Court shall promulgate rules to administer this section.” But the court hasn’t promulgated any rules.

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