Florida is one step closer to online access to court records. The Florida Supreme Court has announced new rules that balance privacy interests with freedom of information. The rules lean heavily toward disclosure, a pragmatic approach that should lighten the work of the state's clerks of court while upholding Florida's tradition of government in the sunshine. Now the courts need to jump-start efforts to get electronic access out of the experimental stage and into practice statewide.
The primary issue the high court resolved was what to do about more than 1,000 public record exemptions in state law. The administrative burden on the courts to comb through millions of records filed annually to search for and redact every exempt bit of information would have been a practical impossibility, particularly at a time of dwindling staffing resources.
Instead, the court set out 19 exemptions that are applicable to court records and easily identifiable to clerks of court. The information that falls within these groupings is uniquely sensitive and must be sealed from public view, according to rules that take effect in October. This is the kind of information expected to remain private, such as the names of sexual assault victims, HIV test results, adoption records, bank account numbers and Social Security numbers. The attorneys filing the documents will be responsible to alert the court to the presence of confidential information.
When questions arise regarding other information that someone wants sealed from public view, an expedited hearing process is available. This will give the media an opportunity to object if the information to be sealed is newsworthy. The court also established a procedure to determine the confidentiality of criminal records in situations where a cooperative defendant or confidential informant would be endangered if identified.
There will be no secret dockets. After news reports in 2006 found elected officials and fellow judges were hiding embarrassing court files by keeping them off the public docket, the practice was barred and it will remain so under the new rules.
The high court apparently is still struggling with another big issue before giving the green light to statewide public electronic access: how to reduce the amount of personal information the court system now collects. The court system collects reams of highly personal data that it may not need, and the pragmatic remedy is to stop collecting it.
Electronic public access to court records has waited long enough. It is time to move forward.