Montana Supreme Court clarifies email retention policy

Montana Supreme Court
Posted at 10:28 AM, Apr 06, 2022

HELENA — In a meeting Tuesday, the Montana Supreme Court clarified rules about maintaining digital records, including policies for what emails judicial branch employees should save or delete.

The Supreme Court justices present at the public meeting unanimously approved the new policies – Justice Laurie McKinnon was absent. Under the new policy, staff can delete emails related to routine “ministerial functions” such as scheduling meetings, sharing basic office procedures and random sales pitches.

Ahead of the meeting, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen called the proposed policy “too broad” and said it should not allow for immediate disposal of records.

Supreme Court Administrator Beth McLaughlin said the new policies clarified what is already a frequent practice for administrative staff.

GOP lawmakers scrutinized the judicial branch’s management of digital records during the 2021 Legislative Session. When legislators requested emailed results of a poll showing how district court judges felt about some proposed legislation, McLaughlin told lawmakers she deleted the messages and said she’d seen them as ministerial.

The Legislature formed a special select committee to, in part, investigate the judiciary's management of public records; committee chair, Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, and vice chair Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, attended the court’s Tuesday meeting. The special committee is scheduled to meet April 13 to hear from multiple state agency officials about public record retention.

Among those scheduled to speak on the panels is Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, who maintains digital records for the legislative branch. She said she doesn't think the committee will be happy with her assessment. Government offices produce a massive number of digital records every day and officials are struggling to manage it all, Fox said.

“It’s just a mess, no matter which branch, which agency,” Fox said. “You could keep buying servers for the rest of your life but to what end.”

Fox expects to hear similar things from the other agency representatives, she said.

“It’s a bigger issue than we’re prepared to deal with at this point,” Fox said.

The Supreme Court also announced a plan to increase public access to Montana's district court records. The judicial branch is hoping to launch a public portal, which will allow people access to some court records from their own computers, rather than at a local courthouse.

Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.