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Florida Supreme Court restricts electronic access to court records

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Florida Supreme Court restricts electronic access to court records

  • Many records were exempted from an administrative order that curtailed electronic access, and a court-appointed committee will recommend a comprehensive policy by July 1, 2005.

Dec. 2, 2003 — Prompted by concerns about privacy and identity theft, the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court last week issued an administrative order that could substantially limit the extent to which Florida court records are publicly available over the Internet.

The 11-page order, issued Nov. 25 and signed by Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead, states that all documents filed with a Florida court — including such common records as tax liens and divorce filings — will no longer be disseminated electronically unless they fall into one of 10 exceptions listed in the order. Previously, court records were presumptively available to anyone who paid an access fee.

The court’s order says the restrictions are needed to address concerns about “the broad release of sensitive or confidential information through electronic media.” The order does not specify the type of “sensitive” or “confidential” information that it is meant to protect. But the review was requested by the Florida legislature after widespread criticism that the state’s database allowed access to individuals’ social security numbers and personal financial data.

The order will likely remain in effect until July 1, 2005, when a 15-member committee appointed by the court completes its task of recommending comprehensive policy on electronic access to court records. The names of members of the committee, which includes judges, attorneys and academics, has been publicly released.

Despite the more restrictive policy, freedom of information advocates say the impact may not be as dramatic as it appears.

“There are numerous exceptions to the moratorium,” said Barbara Peterson, president of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based First Amendment Foundation. “Anything that you as a reporter or I as a citizen would want, we’re still going to be able to get.”

The broadest of the order’s exceptions is for “official records,” which is defined by Florida law to include real estate titles and marriage records. In addition, electronic access will continue to be provided for docket sheets, hearing schedules and court calendars, appellate briefs and opinions, pleadings in cases of “significant public interest” and certain other files. A procedure for requesting specific pleadings in electronic form is available.

Still, the ultimate impact of the new policy could depend largely on its implementation.

“The problem is not so much what the policy itself says, but how it will be interpreted in a court clerk’s office 150 miles from Tallahassee,” said Bill Hirschman, a freedom of information specialist with the Society of Professional Journalists. Hirschman testified last year before an ad hoc committee appointed by the Florida legislature to evaluate the state’s policies on electronic access. “Often, people with the best intentions will interpret orders as narrowly and conservatively as possible, just to avoid trouble.”

“The method of dissemination should be immaterial,” Hirschman added. “It shouldn’t matter whether you want to see the record on the Internet or at the courthouse.”


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