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Clerks want to change who blue-pencils court filings

Overwhelmed by the logistics of determining what information in Florida's court files is shielded from public view, state court clerks are quietly petitioning the Legislature to allow those filing court papers to decide what can be withheld under public records laws.

The proposal comes in the midst of a debate across Florida's court system about how to protect confidential and sensitive information as courts embrace new technologies, such as the Internet.

The state Supreme Court formed a task force to examine the issue and will consider its recommendations starting March 1. The task force did not include this proposal among its recommendations.

Now, in an effort causing consternation among open-records advocates, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers is asking lawmakers, not the court, to change state law to relieve clerks of the job of redacting confidential and exempt information from court files.

Court files are public record, but often contain confidential information, such as the names of sexual abuse victims, or private details exempt from public records laws, such as Social Security numbers. The "custodians" of court records are charged with making sure sensitive information is redacted before those records are made available for public view, an easier task when only paper copies exist.

But, as court files come to be archived electronically, public access can be instant.

Fred Baggett, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig, said Wednesday that Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, has agreed to sponsor the bill. No House sponsor has yet signed on.

"Clerks of courts are custodians of other people's records. They aren't aware of what is put in a document, unless you have them manually review 17-billion pages of documents," Baggett said.

Under the association's plan, individuals filing documents with the court would be responsible for redacting any confidential or exempt information. The omissions would be replaced with a unique number that could be cross-referenced to a second document that would be sealed from public view. The secret document would also include a citation as to what state law allowed for the exemption.

While individuals and attorneys involved in the case would have access to the information, no one else in the public could without petitioning a judge.

But critics contend that is a sharp change from Florida's traditional assumption that all government records are open.

And they argue the plan could create a limitless avenue for abuse by individuals seeking to avoid embarrassment or public scrutiny.

"The problem with this is that it presumes that the person making a filing knows the law," said Supreme Court task force member Jonathan Kaney Jr., general counsel for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for open government supported by the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers.

"The result would be that some people would blissfully put confidential information that shouldn't be public into record. More troubling, however, is what people might think ought not to be public," Kaney said.

Joni James can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or jjames@spttmes.com.

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