Confirming access to court records by the public is a deep seated right and which ensures accountability. A previous ruling by a Windham County Judge to redact certain parts of court records has been overturned. The redaction refers to reports over mental competency of 2 suspects in Vermont public court records. While there remain legal instances where sections of a competency report can be redacted from public court records these remain limited. Supreme court justices were in majority when they found that there was no justification for redaction in the cases in question.

A recent opinion (November 13) by the Appeals Court also put forward numerous broad statements around open court records. In that rulings and decisions should not be cloaked in order for the proper functioning of the judicial system. If court records are shrouded in mystery the public may well become disillusioned with the judicial process. Windham had appealed and argued that where mental health intersects criminal justice it remains an area of importance and primary public interest.

Competency reports are relevant as directed by law to be considered as evidence and available to the public. In this case substantial parts of competency reports had been sealed and kept from the public. The state’s position was that the records should be available as they were relevant. The decision is seen as a triumph for the state. However caution is advised as to excessive extrapolation in further criminal cases.

Determining how accessible a competency report is should be case specific. With the sensitive nature around mental health it should also be fact driven. Competency determines as to whether a defendant should even be in front of a judge. These court records involve health records, substance abuse and mental health. The decision by the Supreme Court arises from two cases that are unrelated in Windham Superior court.

One defendant was charged with burglary and a further charge of operation without owners consent. The defendant’s arraignment in September 2013 raised the question of mental health issues. A psychiatrist based in Burlington found the defendant competent for trial. The defendant objected to the admittance of his competency report in to evidence.
The competency report was redacted by the judge and only included detail of the impressions by the evaluation and specific findings. Court records confirm the non redacted parts were admitted and the redacted parts omitted. Redacted portions found to be ‘less relevant’ reference competency than non redacted.

The decision by the judge was objected to by the state. Competency was put forward as per ‘fluid legal concept’ as confirmed by a further competency report around early 2014. The defendant was again examined but now found to be incompetent to face trial. As previous the defense and doctor argued over the content of the report and what should be admitted in to evidence. For the full article and additional case please follow this link