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

Florida Phoenix by Lucy Morgan

February 13, 2019

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.

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