By Gary Blankenship
Most Florida clerks of courts have placed their court records online, where they can be accessed by lawyers and the public.
However, users must go to each clerk’s website to gain access to that county’s court files, although a second statewide database of court records, now only available to governmental agencies, may soon be available to attorneys and others.
Accessing the county-by-county records, according to Santa Rosa County Judge Robert Hilliard, can be a bit of a challenge. Hilliard chairs the Access Governance Board of the Florida Courts Technology Commission, which among other functions monitors clerks who are putting records online.
“What we have in Florida are 67 independent counties overlaid by 20 judicial circuits, and each of those entities has certain policies and procedures that have been in operation for many decades.We are now transitioning into an environment that requires certain definition so it can be used by a computer,” Hilliard said.
That means access for each county’s records will be through that county clerk of court’s website and there may be local rules or administrative orders that affect the access, he said, adding, “They have differences about what they choose to offer online versus over the counter.”
Regular users can become “registered users” in a county, which will speed access because there is some identification of the user, Hilliard said.
Accessing the records online will bring lawyers, perhaps for the first time, into contact with the “security matrix” that protects confidential information in court filings.
Hilliard said the ticklish job about making records available via the internet is shielding sensitive information.
The matrix divides potential users of court records into various categories — judges, attorneys of record, state attorneys, public defenders, the public, guardians ad litem, etc. — and then determines what access they will get. Judges basically have access to all information, except records expunged or sealed under F.S. Chap. 943. Attorneys of record get access to most records except those sealed under F.S. Chap 943, made confidential by R. Jud. Admin. 2.420, and some domestic relations records.
Attorneys not of record have the same access as the public, Hilliard said. The matrix establishes two levels of public access. Those who physically go to a clerk’s office may get slightly better access than those who anonymously pull up records online.
“I look at it [the security matrix] as a giant [old-fashioned telephone] switchboard,” Hilliard said. “On one side, you’ve got all this information, some public and some private. On the other side, you’ve got all these different people with different roles. You’ve got citizens, attorneys, private investigators, guardians ad litem, moms and dads of kids, physicians, and judges. The access security matrix is the switchboard between all these different roles and all this different information.”
The matrix is based on state laws governing confidentiality, Bar and court rules, and administrative policies, and the FCTC worked with the Bar’s Rules of Judicial Administration Committee and the Office of the State Courts Administrator in assembling the document.
The matrix is still being refined. The FCTC at its August meeting adopted a tweak to fix part of the matrix, which blocked judges from getting financial information in an obscure type of case. And Miami attorney Joe George led a charge to change another section of the matrix, which prevented the parents of children with disabilities from accessing and filing information online after they filed to become guardian advocates for their children. The FCTC recommended changes to the Supreme Court, which has final jurisdiction.
“The matrix is designed to be responsive to change as the system evolves. It’s relatively new and really has been out in the field a relatively short time,” Hilliard said. “It is only when something is put into the field that you can identify issues that come up.”
According to Office of the State Court Administrator records, Holmes, Suwanee, and Taylor counties are not yet providing any online access. Seminole County has had its application approved to begin a pilot program. Certification is pending for Hamilton County’s pilot program. Bay, Brevard, Lee, Monroe, Pasco, and Wakulla counties are conducting their pilot programs for online access. The remaining 56 counties have been certified by the Supreme Court, on the FCTC’s recommendation, and are providing online access.
“The clerks have been just great about working with us,” Hilliard said.
The second system being worked on, which could solve the problem of having to go to each county to get its records, is an expansion and upgrading of the existing Comprehensive Case Information System, or CCIS, which is maintained by the state’s clerks of circuit courts. CCIS provides case and statistical information to the courts and other state agencies.
In a report to the FCTC at its August meeting, Maryann Marchese, CCIS project manager for the Florida Court Clerk & Comptrollers, said the upgrade, known as Version 3.0, will give real-time access to cases in each clerk’s case management system, as well as data from those systems. There will also be search capabilities.
“All 67 counties provide case data to CCIS,” Marchese said. “Sixty-five of the 67 have implemented CCIS 3.0, which includes the real-time web service. The remaining two are planning to implement it . . . by the third quarter of this year.”
Currently, CCIS has 44,370 active users in 167 agencies, Marchese said.
At an earlier FCTC meeting, FCCC IT Director Melvin Cox said part of the improved CCIS plan is to add all public access security roles, including attorney access. This security enhancement, when completed, will allow clerks the opportunity to examine the feasibility of giving attorneys and other users one-stop access to statewide court records and allow them, for example, to check pending statewide legal actions for a potential client.
One task necessary for that access will be meshing the CCIS data with the security matrix, Marchese and Hilliard said.
“We want to make sure the data is validated, reliable, secure, available, audited,” Marchese said.
Molly Kellogg-Schmauch, spokeswoman for the FCCC, said the upgrade to CCIS is expected to be finished by the end of the year.
“Access for other entities, including attorneys, will be determined once that is finalized and will require a policy decision by the clerks,” she said.
Hilliard said the electronic access to court records has many advantages, pitfalls, and unknowns. He noted some companies are “data mining” court records for information, and there have been cases in which inmates have accessed various records from different databases and different agencies to try to identify police informants.
“It brings sometimes unforeseen consequences,” he said. “Lawyers serve the public, and that’s one thing that we keep in mind. This is often stuff that is time-critical for many people, like the media, the attorneys, the parties. As we move more into an electronic model from our paper-based model, we certainly don’t want to do anything to slow it down.”