An unbelievable odyssey: Trying to access court records, for free and on the spot, at your local courthouse

Madison County Courthouse
Unlike other courthouses, the Madison County, FL courthouse still provides traditional access to court records. Credit: Creative Commons

For many years, Florida’s public records law made it easy to look at court files – in person, at the courthouse or online.

Not any more.

The Circuit Clerks who guard this gate have imposed some ridiculous restrictions that can substantially delay access to lawsuits and make it very costly to see one.

You can discover this with a visit to most any courthouse or attempt to check a lawsuit online.

First you’ll encounter a “Secure Website User Management” page that requires you to fill out a “registration agreement’’ listing your name, email and physical address, phone numbers, and the name of your business. Then you’ll have to hire a notary public to authenticate your written statement and get it to the courthouse.

The clerks claim the changes are required by a Florida Supreme Court order.

Not so says Craig Waters, spokesman for the high court.  The court issued an order which requires the custodian of records to redact confidential information such as Social Security numbers, but the order says it should not restrict access to other portions of the record.

The court is not happy with the way things are going and on Friday, Waters said a Technology Committee that reports to the court voted to ask the Supreme Court to prohibit the use of the notarized statements to gain access to court records.

Hopefully the court will win this fight.

It is just another chapter in the continuing battle between those who would be happy if pesky reporters never sought access to documents and those who want access to records.

In a letter to the Supreme Court, Tampa lawyer Carol LoCicero has asked the court to look at other ways to protect confidential information. She notes that at least 43 of the 50 states require the person filing the lawsuit or other document to be responsible for redacting confidential information.

LoCicero is asking the court for help on behalf of a group of Florida newspapers and television stations and the First Amendment Foundation.

The group recently produced a report compiled by Ryan Abbott, a regional bureau chief for Courthouse News, a nationwide news service, after he visited courthouses from Key West to Tallahassee to see what sort of problems citizens encounter when seeking access to lawsuits.

What Abbott found would make your hair stand on end if you thought you could still walk into a courthouse and see the latest lawsuits that have been filed on any given day.

In Key West he asked to see a lawsuit filed a day earlier. He got the number of the case from a court docket on a public terminal in the clerk’s office.

The counter clerk told him the complaint had indeed been filed but was not publicly available unless Abbott was willing to pay one dollar per page to see it.  So he paid $6 for a printout.

Next Abbott drove up to the Marathon branch of the Monroe County Courthouse and asked to see a recently filed case.  The clerk said the case could only be inspected if he had a case number.  There were no public terminals in the office, so he couldn’t get a number.  He left without seeing any of the files.

At the Plantation branch of the courthouse the clerk told him the office has three days to docket and open a new file and everyone must wait for the docket to appear on the court’s website.  Then they could call the clerk’s office, pay by phone with a credit card and wait for a copy of the lawsuit to be delivered by email.  Again, he left without seeing a record.

In Miami, Abbott asked for a lawsuit filed two days earlier.  The complaint had been listed on a docket, but the clerk said it could not be viewed for free – thus throwing a really big brickbat into the state’s long deserved reputation for free and easy access to public records.

When he offered to pay a dollar a page the clerk said the lawsuit could not be printed because it had been sent for review by automated software which was supposed to redact confidential information, but the redaction software frequently breaks down and the work must be done by hand.

Abbott determined that new lawsuits that once were available on the day they were filed now cannot be viewed for “roughly eight court days.’’

Other counties reported similar delays and charges to see court cases that have always been available for viewing as soon as they were filed and without cost.

In the old days, before we got so dependent on computers and websites, reporters for various newspapers or broadcast stations could stop by the courthouse and quickly review the stack of lawsuits filed while they were actually “news.’’

In more than one courthouse, Abbott was told he could not see lawsuits without registering for access, but he’d have to be a lawyer to register. He left without seeing any record.

In some counties, newly-filed lawsuits were not available for examination for six to eight days. In some cases, reporters who asked to see a particular case were told they could see it only if they were a party to the lawsuit they were requesting. In some counties, surly clerks refused to answer any questions about the process, directing Abbott to a law library on another floor in the building.

Only one county – Madison – offered traditional access to a recently filed lawsuit.

“The records room in Madison was like a fossil reminder of the excellent paper access once provided in Florida’s courts, and it was the only remaining example of traditional access found by Mr. Abbott on his voyage through the courts of Florida,’’ the report noted.

In nearby Monticello in Jefferson County, Abbott also gained access to the most recently filed lawsuit – but it was 10 days old.

In Tallahassee – the state capital, Abbott was told that documents tied to those listed on the docket were “locked’’ and he could fill out an application, have it notarized and send it back to the clerk to gain access.

After his application was accepted, he was able to review a small number of cases but access to most files could take up to seven days, he was told.

God forbid that anyone is trying to publish a daily newspaper in this mess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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