The Potluck

Lawmakers question new fee for online court documents

By: - February 3, 2022 4:32 pm

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul as the sun sets on Election Day, November 3, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

Several lawmakers and a candidate for governor said Thursday they oppose the state judicial branch’s plans to begin charging people $8 per document for court documents obtained online. 

The state judicial branch launched online access to district court case records in March 2021, and more than 3 million documents have been downloaded for free since then. But sometime this year, the judicial system will begin charging $8 per document for anything beyond the first page — the same fee if people get the document at a courthouse.

Minnesota State Court Administrator Jeff Shorba told a House panel that the launch of Minnesota Court Records Online has been “a really huge success,” but some lawmakers questioned their plan to begin charging fees, which go into the general fund.

Shorba said the fee is being charged based on a state law. 

“You can decide we’re wrong,” he told the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee. 

Several lawmakers indicated they think the judicial branch is wrong to charge that much for public documents. Federal courts charge 10 cents per page for online court documents.

Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, is a co-sponsor on a bill, HF 3041, that would eliminate the fee for online documents. 

“I get charging for the in-person fee when staff time is used and copying fees are used, but the online access should be free — especially when the money is going into the general fund. It’s not even going to the court.”

Sen. Michelle Benson, a Ham Lake Republican who is running for governor, tweeted support for Robbins Thursday, saying $8 per document is “bad policy.”

“This is a barrier that further restricts the public’s access to information,” Benson wrote. “This isn’t transparency in government.”

Committee chair Jamie Becker-Finn said the statute does set an $8 fee for an uncertified copy of civil or criminal documents, but it’s not clear whether the fee should apply to online documents. 

Becker-Finn is also working on a bill that would clarify that online documents wouldn’t incur fees, and in-person fees would be limited to the actual cost, which she thinks is less than $8. 

“I think that $8 per document is a lot to just access things online,” she said in an interview after the hearing. 

Becker-Finn said hopefully lawmakers can find common ground on the issue.

“I think there’s certainly consensus among the public,” she said.

News reporters and independent journalists have expressed concern about the fees. CrimeWatchMpls — a volunteer-run social media account that reports on crime in the metro area — recently tweeted that the fees would create a significant barrier for their research. In one recent week, for example, they downloaded 19 court documents, which would cost them $152 once the fees are implemented.

“That’s excessive and simply not a sustainable cost to absorb for volunteer independent media on a weekly basis,” they wrote.

Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, said she understands charging for printing costs, but not for documents downloaded online. 

Shorba said lawmakers can interpret the statute differently, but judicial officials would just like the fees to be “consistent.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.