Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, September 03, 2007

States slowly providing OA to legal documents

Robert Schwaneberg, States slow to put documents on internet, Star-Ledger, September 3, 2007.  Excerpt:

...While the federal courts continue to expand their [free] online offerings, however, state court systems are dragging their feet. One reason is the cost of converting millions of pieces of paper into electronic forms. Another is the fear court records contain personal details that, when laid out on the Web for anyone to see, could be used to steal someone's identity or invade their privacy.

Dozens of state court systems, including New Jersey's, have formed committees to study this question: Just how public should public court records be? ...

Few people can invest the time and money to travel to a courthouse, negotiate the bureaucracy, wait while paper records are retrieved and pay sometimes prohibitive fees, said [Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism]. The Internet, he added, overcomes all of those obstacles and "frees this information up for anyone to use it."

The Supreme Court of the United States is in the forefront, providing free online access to its opinions and docket sheets, as well as a link to an American Bar Association Web site that posts the briefs -- or written arguments -- filed by lawyers.

The highest courts of only five states -- Florida, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota and Texas -- match that level of online access. At the lower courts, the disparities are even greater; only a few scattered counties provide anything approaching that level of online access. A few have retreated, removing documents that had been online for years....

In November 2003, the Florida Supreme Court, generally a leader in providing public access, imposed a statewide moratorium on putting court documents on the Internet. It required the clerk for Manatee County to block public access to civil cases and criminal charges that had already been posted on the Web.

The clerk, R.B. "Chips" Shore, had been posting civil filings online for two years and criminal records for one year. Privacy advocates complained some of those records contained information, including Social Security numbers, that should have been confidential.

"There were a lot of Social Security numbers sitting out there," Shore said. "We'd never had a problem."  On the other hand, Shore said he refused to put traffic tickets online because the combination of a home address and driver's license number is too valuable to identity thieves.  "I'm committed to the public having access to their records in as safe a way as possible," Shore said. "I think that's our job."

Now Shore is at the forefront of an effort to return court records in Florida to the Internet. He got permission from the state Supreme Court to conduct an experimental program using software to block sensitive information such as Social Security numbers from appearing online....