Lawsuit argues new Missouri law redacting names from court filings hampers defense lawyers, journalists

By Ryan Krull

A new state law intended to protect the privacy of witnesses and victims of crimes is instead hampering defense lawyers and journalists, a lawsuit filed last week in Cole County Circuit Court in Missouri argued. 

That law, which took effect in August, contains a provision requiring that the names of crime victims and witnesses be redacted in court filings. But the lawsuit now seeking to overturn the law says that these reactions are overly broad in mandating that the names of prosecutors, police officers, public officials and others whose positions preclude a “reasonable claim of privacy interest” be blotted out of public view. 

Photo by Jimmy Emerson via Flickr

As the GJR previously reported, Missouri’s redaction law is among the most censorious in the nation. 

The lawsuit was filed on May 31 by attorneys Michael Gross and Nina McDonnell, lawyer and journalist William Freivogel and the Missouri Broadcasters Association. (Freivogel is the publisher of GJR and was not involved in the editing of this story.)

The suit outlines the difficulties that the redaction requirements have caused plaintiff McDonnell, a defense attorney who often represents incarcerated individuals seeking to have their criminal convictions overturned. Under the new law, preparing her defense now involves going through and making the redactions on trial transcripts that can run hundreds if not thousands of pages long. The redaction law  “exacerbates the problem of access to justice,” the suit claims, by putting the cost of this time-consuming onto people who are locked up and already struggling to afford to mount appeals.

The effects of the law extend beyond those seeking post-conviction relief, the suit claimed. 

The broad scope of the redactions make it difficult for journalists to report on the court system, the suit says, complicating the media’s role as public watchdog and the public’s understanding of “the full facts” of what is happening inside that branch of government. 

“Courts have always been the most transparent branch of the government,” said Dave Roland, representing the plaintiffs in the suit. He points out that observers of American democracy dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville have noted that the courts’ openness provides a unique opportunity for average citizens to understand their inner-workings. “The redaction statue challenges that. That is really concerning,” Roland said. 

The task of defending the status quo falls to state Attorney General Andrew Bailey, whose office has itself recently been accused of running afoul of the new redaction law. 

Last month the Kansas City Star reported that the state of Missouri lost a $23 million lawsuit filed by Florida-based HHS Technology, which in 2022 sued over breaches of contract related to the state’s Medicaid program.

Bailey’s office subsequently filed an appeal and in doing so “did not make a single redaction in the entire record,” wrote lawyers representing HHS Technology in their own filings responding to the appeal.

Roland said this ought to make the attorney general’s office sympathetic to the suit filed last week.

“I am hopeful that the AG’s office, especially in light of their recent situation, would be understanding that this is a problem,” he said. 

Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist, formerly of the Riverfront Times. Find him on X @ryanwkrull 

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