First Amendment Tour de Florida: Stage 3, Tavares to Yulee

Acting like a trade association, Florida’s elected court clerks have seized control of the portal through which public records are created and seen. Why? Follow the money.

Art by Carlos Ayala

The Florida clerks created a for-profit company to manage the portal and collect convenience fees and credit surcharges on the half-billion dollars that flows through the Florida court system.

The for-profit company then distributes “dividends” to the clerks association. How many millions of dollars are involved — that is a figure cloaked within the company books.

One result of the company’s monopoly control of the public record is that First Amendment access to court records has been crushed. One of the Courthouse News reporters in Florida, Marilyn Alvarez, visited courts in the center of the state to see how bad it was.

Tavares

In the reading room of Lake County’s Circuit Court, reporter Alvarez searched for the new cases, a traditional source of news. On each docket record was superimposed a small drawing of a lock.

She then went back to the check-in window and asked to see the new cases. The counter clerk said that unless the reporter was a party to the case, she must request the document and wait for it to be read front to back by a court employee.

That usually takes two to three days, she said. If you do not ask and wait, the case stays locked.

DeLand

At the courthouse for Volusia County, Alvarez was directed to three public computer terminals on the second floor. Under the tab labeled “daily cases filed circuit civil,” no cases from that day could be seen.

She went to the counter and talked with a counter clerk and her supervisor who explained that a new complaint cannot be reviewed if it is not already on the computer terminal.

They further explained that an e-filed case first goes into a queue where a clerk in the call center reviews and accepts the public filing. It then goes into a second queue for the civil department where another clerk checks the fee payment and reads through the entire document.

When the document is opened by a reporter, it is again checked, this automatically, by a software program. The clerk said the office aims to let people see the new filings within three days. The actual delays varied from day to day but the clerk’s estimate was about right, overall.

Yulee

A few weeks later, the Courthouse News bureau chief for the region, Ryan Abbott, visited courts along Florida’s northern border. He took a car for hire to the clerk’s office in Nassau County Circuit Court.

“Yulee is the middle of nowhere, no town, no cafes, no bakeries,” said Abbott. “It’s a wooden crossroads and here’s this big government building.

“In the clerk’s office there was a couple computer terminals against the wall. There’s glass between clerks and the public, a clerk is there and she’s friendly.”

The public terminals gave an error message. “So I went to window, she spun her computer around for me to look at. She passed her mouse under the glass.”

While she watched, he attempted to open the court’s search page but a message on the screen said the page was unresponsive. The clerk called the “tech people” but they did not pick up, she left a message.

Highway fishing

While they waited, the clerk explained that she must first accept a new case, at which point docket information becomes available on the court’s website. The images, however, are held back until a clerk reads through them. “We have three days,” she said.

After waiting for 20 minutes, Abbott left without seeing any new filings, recent or otherwise. “I went outside and got an Uber. When he came, the guy gets out of car and moves fishing gear from the back seat. He told me that when he got the call he was fishing for smallmouth bass in culverts by the side of the highway.”

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Unlike any other court in the nation, Florida’s court clerks believe they are required to check each filing for private information before it goes online. The result is a multi-day delay that is lethal to news reporting.

The traditional reporter’s job of reviewing the new filings has been incinerated by the clerks, and public documents sit behind an icon in the form of lock. But if a reporter pays in advance, the clerk dispenses with formalities and prints out the document.

Like the clerk-owned, for-profit company that controls the filing portal, it’s all about the money.

Read about other stages of the First Amendment Tour de Florida:

Tour de Florida: Stage 1, Key West to Fort Lauderdale

Tour de Florida, Stage 2: Palm Beach to Orlando

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