Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady has come to the aid of Floridians who want to see public records stashed in county courthouses around the state.
In an order released this week, Canady rewrote the rules for access to the records, erasing a requirement imposed by circuit clerks who were demanding restrictions that often delayed access to records being requested by citizens.
The change came after the Florida Phoenix published details of courthouse rules around Florida that have been limiting online and in-person access to records.
When a member of the public wanted to access a record online, they were forced to make a notarized statement listing their name, email and physical addresses, phone numbers and the name of their business. The statements had to be presented to officials at the courthouse and approved by the clerk.
Canady’s order erases the requirement for the public and “registered users’’ to produce any written notarized agreement to access electronic records. The change apparently means that anyone will be able to register as a “user’’ and gain access to online records, but First Amendment experts suggest the definition of “registered users’’ may vary from county to county.
In the past, most court records were available to anyone online in most Florida counties and were easy to obtain when a member of the public went to the courthouse and requested a record.
The changes which made public record access more difficult were made by all Florida clerks of the court after the Supreme Court issued an order in 2014 requiring the custodians of all records to redact confidential information like Social Security numbers.
Justice Canady’s new order says any member of the public or any “registered user’’ can now access all court files except those that have been expunged or sealed or are made confidential by law or court order. Family law, juvenile and probate files are excluded. The court anticipates that a simple online form will be available for registration. The changes were recommended by a Supreme Court advisory commission that reviews access to records and includes guidelines for access by lawyers, various public officials and the parties to lawsuits.
The changes followed a report compiled by Ryan Abbott, an experienced reporter for Courthouse News Service after he visited courthouses from Key West to Tallahassee to see what sort of problems citizens were encountering when they sought access to court records. He made the report for a group of newspapers, TV stations and the First Amendment Foundation.
Gone were the days when a citizen could walk into the courthouse and expect to see a recently filed lawsuit or record. In a number of cases, Abbott was forced to pay $1 a page to even see a lawsuit. In some cases, he was refused access to records in offices with no public computer terminals unless he had the case number of a lawsuit. In some places he was told he would have to wait three days or longer to see recently filed documents.
In several counties, Abbott left the courthouses without seeing any of the records he requested. In some counties, he was told he could not see the records unless he was “registered’’ and he would have to be a lawyer to register. In a few counties, clerks refused to answer any questions about getting access to records, directing him to a law library on another floor in the building. For many years, Florida officials had been proud of the access to public records available in every county. After the 2014 court decision, the days when a reporter could stop by the local courthouse, check a file of newly filed lawsuits and write about them for the next day’s paper were gone.
Only one county – tiny Madison County in North Florida – welcomed Abbott and provided traditional access to recently filed lawsuits. One other county – nearby Jefferson – was also willing, but no lawsuits had been filed in the preceding 8 days.
In Tallahassee, the state capital, Abbott was told the lawsuits listed on the docket were “locked’’ and he would have to fill out an application, get it notarized and send it back to the clerk to gain access.
In his order, Justice Canady said the state court system intends to deliver “timely, consistent, and useful information through traditional and innovative communication methods while safeguarding the security, integrity and confidentiality of court data.’’
Tampa lawyer Carol Locicero represents the news organizations and the First Amendment Foundation in the continuing fight for access to public records. Locicero said Wednesday she believes Canady’s order “is a step in the right direction’’ by eliminating the cumbersome process requiring citizens to get a notarized statement. But she doesn’t think it will end issues over speedy access to records.
“I’m hoping we can get there,’’ she added.