The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday extended a ban on secrecy in civil court cases to criminal proceedings.
The amended rules were prompted by controversial reports in local newspapers that said prosecutors were altering public dockets to cover up the felony convictions of informants, the Broward Bulldog reported. The reports led to a 2007 rule change that prohibited secret dockets in civil cases — the most recent rule amendments extended the ban to criminal and appellate cases, which now must have case numbers available to the public even if other information is sealed.
Carol LoCicero, a partner at Thomas & LoCicero and board member of The First Amendment Foundation, said the changes establish a limited number of categories of information that is automatically withheld from the public.
"It’s a victory for access if you put it in the context of how far we have come," LoCicero said.
There are now 19 categories of information — including adoption records, Social Security numbers and juvenile delinquency records — that are exempt from disclosure, which LoCicero called "the basic exemptions that [attorneys] are used to seeing."
Some lawyers worry that the procedure for sealing information under the new law’s classification system is so complex it may lead to more litigation over what records can be released.
“The rule should be that court records are simply open, and if you want to seal them you have to go through some extraordinary showing as to why,” Florida Bar Media and Communications Law Committee chairman Thomas Julin told the Bulldog.
The court previously sidelined its efforts to begin an electronic access system so it could focus on clarifying the procedures for sealing court records. Now that the new rules have been issued, it will again focus on electronic access.
"The amendments also bring our court system closer to providing the public with electronic access to court records," the decision said.