State high court endorses county clerk's records access program

cnudi@bradenton.comMarch 26, 2014 

Richard "Chips" Shore, Manatee County clerk of courts, has long championed online public access to court records.TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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MANATEE -- Internet access to court records in Florida will be a lot easier after the state supreme court approved the process used in Manatee County as the model for the rest of the state.

The high court adopted procedures and standards Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore's office has used since 2007 during a court-approved pilot program.

"That program was determined to have been successful in providing appropriate access to electronic court records while effec

tively protecting confidential information," the court wrote in a recent administrative order.

Shore said Tuesday he wants a system were the public can access the same records online obtainable in person at the Manatee County Courthouse.

"These records are not mine, not the judges, not the counties," he said, "They are the public's and they have a right to them."

County clerks who make court records available online are required to follow an access security matrix the high court adopted with its order.

This matrix outlines several levels of user access to various records. For example, judges and clerk staff can access all records except those restricted by statute.

Another level is for attorneys working on court cases while the general public has its own level of access, which includes most records.

Each level lists what specific information may be viewed on each record. Private numbers such as Social Security and bank accounts are redacted for most levels.

Shore's office developed a special program to redact this specific information, which made the pilot program so successful.

Shore said he will give the source coding for redaction to any other court clerk.

Florida has pioneered public access to government records, and the recent court order on Internet access to court records will boost its reputation.

"This is really exciting," Shore said. "No other state has this."

Joel Chandler, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Foundation, which promotes open government, said he supports any action creating greater transparency.

"The Declaration of Independence specifically references public access to records and meetings," Chandler said. "We just can't have a government without seeing what the government does."

The administrator for the supreme court had the National Center for State Courts evaluate the Manatee County pilot program . The NCSC reported it found "the public access service to be very valuable and would like to see the service continued statewide."

Shore, Manatee County clerk of the court for more than 35 years, began putting county and court records on the Internet in the mid-1990s.

Sarasota County Clerk of the Court Karen Rushing said her office is prepared to provide the state-required online access.

"We have been redacting and applying confidential status to documents all along," Rushing said, although there is no time frame to complete the process.

The court order does not require all clerks to make records available on the Internet, but if they do they must get certified and follow court standards.

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