Politics & Other Mistakes: You don't need to know

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The purpose of jargon is to hide what someone doesn’t want you to hear – “exposed nipple” for instance – in a veil of noncontroversial nonsense, such as “wardrobe malfunction.” Jargon is designed to obscure what’s really being said.

In other words, jargon is the Congressman Bruce Poliquin of language.

When somebody says something like “shift the paradigm” or “human capital,” they could be trying to sound smart (and failing), but more likely they’re attempting to avoid telling the truth. Either way, it ought to alert you that the bulls have turned their butt ends in your direction and are preparing to employ them for their intended purpose.

That’s the case with the Maine Judicial Branch Task Force on Transparency and Privacy in Court Records, a group committed to making sure the average person has as difficult a time as possible finding out what’s going on in the legal system. The task force is mostly made up of lawyers, apparently chosen for their mastery of devious verbiage. These attorneys have drafted a report calling upon the judicial system to spend $15 million to computerize all records, while making sure that hardly anybody will have easy access to them – except lawyers.

Putting it that way sounds sort of elitist and evil, because, you know, it is. What’s needed is some creative term that cloaks the idea of keeping online public records secret in the mantle of the perfectly reasonable. These folks have succeeded at that in a manner that easily qualifies as world class. According to them, they’re not trying to thwart your right to know. They’re merely preserving an honorable doctrine.

It’s called “practical obscurity.”

Under state law, most court records are public documents, but nothing in the law says that means the public should be able to access them without undergoing enormous hassle. If you want to view case files, you have to go to the courthouse where they’re being kept, and ask for them. If you somehow manage to identify the proceeding in a way that satisfies the system’s rules, you can look the material over. Want copies? That’ll cost you, even though the originals are public property. Want to be notified when new documents are added to the files? Everybody is much too busy for that. You’ll have to come back frequently to check for yourself.

Only the most dedicated devotee of obscure legal proceedings would expend the effort required to learn the details of most court cases. So that information languishes in “practical obscurity.” Because what you don’t know couldn’t possibly hurt you.

Once the system is computerized, though, maintaining “practical obscurity” becomes tricky. In theory, anyone with minimal cyber-skills would be able to pull up all the juicy details of any case. So, the lawyerly task force has decided (with only a single dissenter, a journalist, of course) to limit access to themselves.

Everyone else will have to continue doing it the old-fashioned way, by trudging to the courthouse, where they can view the material on computer monitors just like the ones they have at home, except with more restrictions.

The task force majority argued that to do otherwise (by which they mean to respect the public’s right to know) has the potential to expose sensitive information about parties in lawsuits, and “the misuse of personal information may present personal safety, financial, and data security risks for the persons involved.”

That’s a product of the aforementioned bulls’ butts. The federal courts offer online access to their files, as do several other states. No serious problems have arisen. That’s because judges can seal parts of cases that might reveal matters that perhaps shouldn’t end up floating around in general circulation. In other words, the system already has adequate safeguards in place.

If evildoers wanted this stuff, they wouldn’t bother to wade through gigabytes of data in the court system. They’d just hack your personal computer.

It’s also worth noting that lots of participants in criminal and civil litigation, for reasons that defy common sense, regularly post damaging personal information on their Facebook pages (“Here’s a selfie of us counting the loot from the bank robbery”). If the attorneys behind this report really wanted to protect their clients’ privacy, they’d advise them not to do that.

The task force’s “practical obscurity” jargon adds to the impression that the legal system has something to hide. Unless it does, there’s no good reason not to strip away the difficulties the public encounters in gaining access to the courts.

Such stripping is hardly a “wardrobe malfunction.”

If you know what’s going on under those long black robes, email aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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