This being Sunshine Week, it is easy to surrender to the urge to wail and moan over how many more exemptions the Florida Legislature will carve out of our vaunted open government laws this spring, thus sealing off more information to the public.
As the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee has tabulated, lawmakers are entertaining more than 50 changes to Florida’s public records laws, with only a couple that actually propose expanding access to public information.
Let us, however, not be dour about things that have not yet occurred. Perhaps most of these ideas will fizzle by the time the session wraps up in May. Meantime, the tide occasionally changes direction, and for that we should be grateful. In this instance, that means praising the Florida Supreme Court for green-lighting county court clerks to make more documents available over the Internet.
For a decade, the state’s highest court blocked such access. The justices were concerned that someone’s privacy might be compromised through the release of personal information. That position is certainly valid.
Yet as that freeze continued — with counties granting online access only to a select few, foremost among them judges and lawyers — the numbers of cases filed in local courts grew. When the Supreme Court imposed the ban in 2004, local courts across Florida — meaning circuit- and county-level civil and criminal courts, as well as probate and family courts — fielded 3.7 million cases, according to a state report. That number dropped by about 200,000 cases the following year, but shot back up the next year by 400,000 filings, topping 3.9 million. Since then, Floridians have filed at least 3.9 million cases each year in those courts, with a peak of more than 4.6 million achieved in 2009, the report indicates. The pattern was reflected in Polk County. On average, over the past decade, about 104,000 cases were filed in Polk, although the volume has tailed off recently; that number has dipped below 100,000 in two of the last three years.
Last year, the Supreme Court lifted the moratorium, convinced to do so by the success of a pilot program in Manatee County that ran from 2007 through 2011. The justices determined that online access could be expanded to the general public without compromising sensitive information. Earlier this month the Florida Courts Technology Commission, an arm of the Supreme Court, affirmed that by approving applications from 59 counties to allow viewing records over the Internet.
The move put Florida at the forefront nationally. Bill Raftery, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, told the Tampa Bay Times that Florida’s program would be the first of its kind among the state court systems in the United States.
Access comes with a caveat, as not all records will be available to everyone. Juvenile and some family court documents, for instance, will remain shielded from public viewing. And users who are willing to provide additional personal information to obtain a no-cost subscription can increase their access over anonymous Internet surfers. But by and large, the bulk of the courts’ activities — that is, most criminal and civil records — will be available at no charge at anytime and from anywhere someone can link to the Web.
Polk County Court Clerk Stacy Butterfield plans to test her system in July and, barring any glitches, make it fully available sometime in August. She told us the high court’s decision accomplishes two things.
First, internally, it furthers Butterfield’s goal of improving Polk’s technological capabilities to boost public access to the court system. Butterfield emphasized that she and her staff always welcome opportunities to help people who come through the doors. But she also believes opening records through cyberspace will increase staff efficiency.
Externally, and in a larger sense, the Supreme Court’s decision builds on Florida’s heritage of promoting open government and access to government-held information, Butterfield said.
“I’m just really glad the Supreme Court lifted the moratorium,” Butterfield said. “Because of the environment we operate in, at the clerk’s office and in general, technology surrounds us. It’s a way of life for us.” “Our state’s public records laws are among the broadest in the country, and it helps build faith and trust in our government, and with accountability and transparency,” she added.
We don’t know what our lawmakers will do about records exemptions, but we applaud Florida’s high court for its faith in officials like Butterfield to further and protect the public interest in this way.
Original article here.