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Court Record Moratorium

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  • | 6:00 p.m. November 7, 2003
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Court Record Moratorium

The Florida Supreme Court is expected to close the door to online court records later this month. Proponents claim it's an issue of balancing privacy and easy access.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

Florida businesses that use court records should get ready; the debate over electronic court records could soon be coming to a significant juncture.

A source close to the Florida Supreme Court says it is likely to approve a moratorium on court records distributed electronically by the state's clerks of court.

The current draft of an administrative order by the Florida Supreme Court says that no court record "shall be released in any electronic form by any Florida clerk of court."

The draft also lists a number of exceptions to the rule, such as for official records, attorneys of record and governmental agencies. Dockets, court calendars and traffic cases are also not affected.

The administrative order stems from meetings held last year by the Judicial Management Council of Florida (JMC), an ad hoc committee charged with recommending a policy on electronic records for the court. The JMC's final report, issued Feb. 15, recommended that "for a period of two years, certain court records as determined by the Florida Supreme Court that are not part of the Official Record should not be accessible on the Internet (either by subscription or otherwise) and should not be made available for electronic transfer in bulk."

The new draft order also lays out the make-up of a committee to look into some of the more specific requirements for providing court records electronically.

"What's clear is that it will shut down the subscription Web sites," says Karl Youngs, general counsel/director of Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller. A few counties in the state, including Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota, debuted subscription sites last year in response to Florida House Bill 1679 which made it illegal for certain documents (death certificates, family law, juvenile procedure or probate) to be made available on public Web sites. It was reasoned that because the law says "publicly available Web site," a paid Web site for a select group of subscribers would sidestep the restrictions. The new proposed order closes that loophole.

However, a number of clerks of court say there may be another way of working within the moratorium to present court records on the Internet. Item 6D of the draft order allows clerk of courts to post on the Web "a court record which has been solitarily and individually requested, provided it has been manually inspected by the clerk of court or deputy clerk of court and no information which is confidential or exempt is released."

Sarasota Clerk of Court Karen Rushing says she expects that provision to allow her office to continue to offer court records on-line. "We have trained our staff to examine each page of a court record irrespective of this court order," Rushing says. She says staff processes about 6,000 pages a day. "We don't want to have to do that when someone comes up to the counter."

Critics of the moratorium claim it will cost the clerks of courts money, because they will have to hire more staff to handle the increased courthouse demands, and that it could potentially cost businesses time and money gathering court record data at the courthouses.

Even with the specific allowance for certain users, the ordinance's moratorium could create a virtual lockout because of cost and technology constraints.

"We would have to have a separate log-in just for those people (who are exempt)," Rushing says. "We would have to adapt the technology to allow them just to see only the documents they are allowed to see on the Internet. Maybe it would be a nightmare to maintain. I can tell you we will be looking at it. But with funding issues we are already facing, I'm not sure we are going to be able to afford to do it."


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