BLEEDING HEART LIBERALS ON FLORIDA SUPREME COURT
PULL THE PLUG ON INTERNET ACCESS TO COURT PUBLIC RECORDS
MAKING THE ABSURD ASSUMTION THAT IT MIGHT " INVADE PEOPLE'S PRIVACY"!
It's like the Florida Presidential recount all over again. You remember? The Florida Supremeu Court wanted to keep recounting all the votes until Al Gore won. Now they say public records could invade people's privacy and pull the plug on interact access.
Fearing that too much private and confidential information might be available
over the Internet, the Florida Supreme Court took action to shut down one avenue
of access to information.
In an administrative order issued Tuesday, Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead ordered that clerks of the circuit court put a halt to the electronic dissemination of court records via the Internet or other means.
The records will still remain available for public viewing under Florida's open record statutes, but only within the clerk's offices.
"Current regulation of confidential information is minimal at best," said Anstead in a press release. "Because it will take time to develop a uniform policy, I am directing that bulk electronic distribution of court records cease temporarily. However, I have provided for several exceptions, such as allowing the chief judges of the courts to authorize distribution of documents that have been properly screened and are of significant public interest."
Anstead gave the clerks until Jan. 1, 2004, to comply.
News of the order came as a surprise to 12th Circuit Court Clerk Karen Rushing, the clerk for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. She thought her Web site would be exempt since all documents are physically examined by a clerk before being scanned for viewing over the Internet.
"That's not what I had understood when I first heard about the order," Rushing said. "We'll talk about a notice to put on the Internet. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Through Rushing's Web site, interested parties can view the progress of cases though the judicial process, and even view the documents filed within those cases. Documents in domestic relations or other confidential cases are not available for viewing over the Internet.
According to the order, Rushing can still maintain the progress docket for viewing over the Internet, and case files will be available for viewing over computer terminals in her offices in Sarasota and Venice, as long as the information is not confidential or exempt.
Anticipating the ruling, Barbara Scott, the 20th Circuit Clerk in Port Charlotte, had stopped accepting new subscribers to her subscription-based service last week.
Tuesday, she said she was already preparing notices for the estimated 1,000 subscribers -- mostly lawyers, title companies and media -- about the impending shut down of the service by Jan. 1. When that happens, those wanting the access will have to go to the Justice Center in Punta Gorda and either use an internal computer there or view the paper documents.
Reaction to the ruling from those in favor of open access was predictable.
"It's a horrible ruling," said Mike McQueen, chairman of the Department of Journalism & Broadcasting at Florida International University and a director of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"Court clerks know the law regarding privacy and what parts should and should not be disclosed," he said. "This is essentially the same as the justices picking and choosing what parts of the public records law they want to follow. It's wrong."
McQueen said he thought imposing the moratorium would hinder the public in its evaluation of how one branch of the government -- the judiciary -- functioned.
Earlier this year, a report to the Supreme Court from the Judicial Management Council of Florida about privacy and electronic access to records noted that clerks across the state followed "widely varying practices" regarding the records.
Most did not post trial court documents, but many -- like Rushing -- did, the report noted. And of those that did, there was wide variety in the types of cases and documents available.
That inconsistency, the report noted, was a potential problem because "legal rights of privacy and access normally must be treated the same statewide."
The council went on to recommend a temporary moratorium on electronic access to records until statewide standards were developed.
In his order, Anstead also appointed a new committee on privacy and court records to develop a uniform state policy for electronic access to court records.
Scott, along with 12th Circuit Court Administrator Walt Smith, is a member of the committee.
"It will not be easy," Scott said, mentioning that the committee would have to account for the sensitivity of the records, the state's Sunshine Law, and the push by the Supreme Court to increase the utilization of technology in the judicial system.
"It'll be a balancing act," Scott said, "but I think we'll get a good result." The committee's result is due to the Supreme Court by July 1, 2005.