The Phoenix Flyer

FL court clerks: We want you to have access to public records

By: - April 25, 2019 2:07 pm

Florida’s court clerks feel their story wasn’t fully told in a Phoenix column and a blog post about the difficulty people have been having getting court records around the state. They want people to know that “Clerks are constitutionally bound to follow the rules surrounding access to court records.”  We said we’d be glad to give them the opportunity to reply.

This blog is by Chris Hart IV,  Chief Executive Officer of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers:

 Court Clerks Support Easier Online Access to Court Records

A recent blog post by Lucy Morgan about Chief Justice Canady’s April 16 administrative order (AOSC 19-20), which eliminated the need for registered users to fill out a notarized form to access certain court records, left out key facts. While Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers (FCCC) and its member Clerks have advocated for this very change, Clerks are constitutionally bound to follow the rules surrounding access to court records. Until recently, these Supreme Court-approved rules required users to provide notarized forms to view certain court documents.

The rules are drafted by the Access Governance Board, a subcommittee of the Florida Courts Technology Commission (FCTC).  The Access Governance Board then sends the rules to the FCTC for additional review. The FCTC ultimately presents the rules to the Florida Supreme Court for approval. Once approved, the Supreme Court issues an administrative order. That order encompasses by reference both standards and a detailed matrix that define how different documents must be addressed in terms of access. For example, some court documents are available to anyone, anonymously, while others require the requester to identify themselves.

As custodians of these records, it may have been assumed that Court Clerks determine the rules. The fact is that Clerks hold only three of the 25 seats on the FCTC. Clerks are only one of the important stakeholders whose opinions the Supreme Court considers when determining processes and procedures regarding electronic access to court documents. When this change was first recommended by Judge Robert Hilliard during a November 2018 FCTC meeting, Florida Clerks who serve on the FCTC voted in support.

This is because Clerks have long opposed the notarization requirement as a deterrent to open records. FCCC and its members believe this new process will benefit any member of the public or the media who wants to review court records online. While Clerks support making information available to residents and the media as quickly as is reasonably possible, they must balance this duty with their requirement to protect confidential information.

Through Rule of Judicial Administration 2.420, Clerks are required by the Florida Supreme Court to review every court record and redact 22 types of confidential information, including social security numbers.  The list of 22 confidential items was designed to prevent highly sensitive and personal information from being accessed for purposes of embarrassment or harm. To that end, Clerks are also required to redact the victim’s address in a domestic violence petition, information about victims of child abuse or sexual offenses, clinical records under the Baker Act, and more. According to the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority 2017-2018 Annual Report, this means that Clerks reviewed 16 million submissions, 22.8 million documents and over 100 million pages for possible redactions in the last year alone. While redaction is not instantaneous, and Ms. Morgan has been critical of this fact, the bottom line is that confidential information is being protected and access to court records is being provided in a reasonable time.

As the CEO of FCCC, I’ve seen firsthand the commitment of our elected court clerks across the state of Florida to both provide access and protect the confidential information that the courts have ruled cannot be released. As public trustees, Florida Clerks will continue to balance these obligations for those they are elected to serve.

Chris Hart IV is the Chief Executive Officer of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers (FCCC). FCCC is a statewide, nonprofit member association composed of Florida’s Clerks of the Circuit Court and Comptrollers. FCCC provides local government support services, technical assistance and accreditation opportunities for all members of the association. For more information, visit www.FLClerks.com.

 

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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