In a troubling decision last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it easier to hide records of criminal court proceedings from public view. That ought to worry all who care about a free and open society.

In a unanimous ruling Friday, the SJC reversed its own 20-year precedent and made it much easier for criminal defendants to seal records of cases that were either dismissed or that prosecutors declined to prosecute. The latter are known by the legal term “nolle prosequi.”

In a troubling decision last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made it easier to hide records of criminal court proceedings from public view. That ought to worry all who care about a free and open society.

In a unanimous ruling Friday, the SJC reversed its own 20-year precedent and made it much easier for criminal defendants to seal records of cases that were either dismissed or that prosecutors declined to prosecute. The latter are known by the legal term “nolle prosequi.”

State law allows a judge to seal court records in cases that are dismissed or not prosecuted when “substantial justice would best be served” by sealing. The question, according to Boston-based media law attorney Robert Bertsche, is what precisely those words mean.

Legal precedent, including both the SJC’s ruling from 1995 and a 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1989 established strict criteria for sealing based on the First Amendment’s insistence on open access to information, Bertsche writes in an essay on the ruling. In 1995, the SJC ruled that sealing a court record is permitted only when the defendant proves that the value of sealing outweighs the constitutionally based value of the record remaining open to society.

But last week, in Commonwealth v. Pon, the SJC reversed itself, with the court now claiming that a defendant need only show “good cause” for the sealing of a case. And showing “good cause” is simple by the court’s standards. A defendant need merely show “disadvantages” arising from the criminal record or the passage of time since the dismissal.

The SJC expressed its concern that a criminal record, even of a dismissal, can present “barriers to housing and employment opportunities.”

The decision is “a victory for individual privacy rights at the expense of public access to the court system,” Bertsche writes.

What’s wrong with individual privacy rights? Isn’t privacy a good thing?

Indeed, we all value privacy. But not when it comes at the cost of allowing an arm of the government to rewrite history, to cast facts down George Orwell’s “memory hole,” never to be seen again.

If the SJC is worried about barriers to employment or housing from criminal records, then its complaint is with employment or housing law, not the First Amendment.

When a person is brought up on criminal charges, that is a fact. That fact sets in motion a legal process, and the case moves through the court system to some kind of conclusion. There may be a conviction at trial. There may be an acquittal in that trial. There may be a plea bargain. There may be a dismissal or a decision not to prosecute.

That a case ends in dismissal or a decision not prosecute does not change the fact that charges were brought and a case begun in our court system. Yet, sealing the record makes it all disappear from public view.

Why was a given case dismissed? Did it come, as many dismissals do, after a defendant admitted to sufficient facts to be found guilty but remained out of trouble for a probationary period? Thanks to the SJC ruling, we may never know.

Andover attorney Peter J. Caruso, The Salem News’ media law lawyer, said the SJC has turned the First Amendment on its head.

“Secret court records are not part of our American tradition and certainly not part of the rights of our U.S. Constitution,” Caruso said in an email to the newspaper. “These rights have been pushed aside. ... The court is attempting to rewrite history. What happened actually happened and should not be hidden from public view.”

In Orwell’s “1984,” the protagonist Winston Smith worked at the “Ministry of Truth,” a government agency dedicated to rewriting history to suit party bosses. Smith would tear away newspaper reports that ran contrary to leaders’ preferred propaganda and cast them into the “memory hole” — an incinerator chute.

With its misguided decision favoring a notion of privacy over the truth, the SJC has made it far too easy to send public court records down a memory hole of its own design.

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