I’ve heard other researchers talk about being denied access to records, but I hadn’t encountered this myself. Until yesterday, that is.
I was planning to drive to a local courthouse to search for 19th-century divorce records for a client, but after the lesson I learned last month, I called the courthouse first. It took three phone calls before I found the office where the records I needed were located. When I reached the right clerk, I told her that I wanted to come and search the divorce records from the 1890s, but just wanted to confirm that the records were housed in that office and that the courthouse was open. She told me that I could make a written request for a search for the particular divorce record I wanted, but I wouldn’t be able to search them myself. When I told her that I believed that they were public records, she restated that I could fax or mail (not email) a written request for a search a particular name, but I couldn’t go in the vault to search them. I thanked her and faxed her my request, but it made me wonder about public access. If the particular record group was too fragile for public inspection I could understand it, but this seemed more like a blanket restriction.
I asked for thoughts from researchers on FaceBook. New England Researcher Ruy Cardoso CG suggested that I should show up at the courthouse with some cookies. Not a bad idea. Certainly a little sugar, whether literal or figurative, can go a long way anywhere in life. Judy G. Russell, better known as The Legal Genealogist, suggested that I carry a copy of the Vermont public records law with me. Great idea!
I was going to the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration in Middlesex that day, so I made myself a copy of the statutes there. (Thanks for your help finding it, Marissa!) As Scott Reilly pointed out to me, the statutes are also available online. Click on §§ 315-320. Specifically, §317(a)(2)(b) gives the following definition: “As used in this subchapter, “public record” or “public document” means any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business.” The law lists 40 exemptions to public records. If the record is created by a public agency and isn’t listed in the exemptions, then it is a public record. Vermont is one of the few states where the vital records (birth, marriage, civil union, divorce, death) are open public records.
There is a PDF document online titled, “A Matter of Public Record: A Guide to Vermont’s Public Records Law” that explains Vermont’s public records law. It is missing the 2011 updates to the law regarding timelines for public agencies to respond, but it has a lot of very helpful information. It provides information in “plain English” rather than “legalese,” although the statutes are pretty easy to understand by themselves. This document contains sample letters to use for requesting public records. I also noted with interest that there is an Official Fee Schedule on page 18 that states that photocopies of public records are charged at $.05 per page. This is what is charged at the Vermont Archives, but at a local city clerk’s office I was recently charged $2.00 for one page of a public record at a self-service copier. Hmm. Section 316(a)(2)(b) of the public records law states that a public agency can charge “the actual cost of providing the copy.” Could that possibly amount to $2.00 when no staff time is involved? On page 19 of the Guide to Vermont’s Public Records Law, there is a chart describing Town Clerk’s Fees, as of 2009. There it states that uncertified copies can be charged at $2.00 for the first page and $1.00 per page after that. It sounds like that is the basis for what I was charged. I wonder what the basis is for the wide discrepancy between $.05 and $2.00 for a page?
So, what about those nineteenth-century divorce records I wanted? Hopefully the court will send me the record I want in response to the request I faxed. If I decide that I need to search the records myself, I’ll probably try asking again, perhaps to someone a bit higher up. That’s probably all it would take. Vermont is a very friendly state. If necessary, I could present my request for access in writing. At least I better understand the process now.
Do you have a story about being denied access to public records anywhere during your genealogical research? How did you resolve it? I’d love to hear your story!