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Fla. High Court ruling validates local clerk’s program

MANATEE — The Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court has been a leader in providing Internet access to public records while protecting the confidential information of individuals.

A Florida Supreme Court ruling handed down Thursday validates the efforts of R.B. “Chips” Shore, the county clerk of the court.

Shore started putting public records on the Internet in 1994, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, the Florida Legislature began instituting restrictions.

In 2003, the state high court began looking into the issue, and in 2006 Shore volunteered his office to be the sole test site for a pilot program.

“We’ve been working with the court all along,” Shore said.

Shore said the procedures the high court outlined in its ruling for county clerks follow what his office has been doing.

“Some of my staff did a quick perusal of the ruling,” he said, “and they said they couldn’t see anything different.”

The ruling requires county and court records to be easily accessible, as long as the clerks’ offices remove confidential information, such as bank account numbers, Social Security numbers and other personal data.

Since Shore began the pilot project in 2006, the public has been given Internet access to records through a secure subscribers system of logins and passwords.

Prior to 2002, when the Florida Supreme Court put a moratorium on Internet access to public records, the clerk’s office made those records available without the subscriber requirements.

Those records always were and are still available to anyone who asked for them at the county courthouse.

Shore said with the court’s ruling Thursday, other county clerks can now apply to install similar programs.

“We became the basic bar for other counties to follow,” Shore said.

Advisory committees identified more than 1,000 possible public record exemptions, but the justices winnowed that down to 19.

Among them: adoption records, Social Security and bank account numbers, information identifying victims of sexual abuse or the address of a domestic abuse victim, and some mental health and substance abuse records.

Attorney Carol LoCicero of Tampa, a petitioner in the case who represents several newspapers and other media outlets, said she was particularly pleased by that element of the opinion.

“The list of exemptions contained in the rule is pretty short,” LoCicero said. “When you put that into the context of where we started, that is fabulous.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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