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Op-Ed

Florida Come Back Tour

June 21, 2022

Down along the Gulf Coast, we found Free Florida where the dive bars are plentiful and the fishing is good.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

On the road in Florida, two bureau chiefs and I left Tallahassee after a morning hearing in our case against Florida’s e-filing authority and drove to Clearwater.

I had never been in the Gulf of Mexico before and the clear, calm warm water was a startling contrast to the turbulent, cold water of the Pacific. All three of us dove into the water and then repaired to the beach-level bar at the Opal Hotel to drink cold Miller Lights, the mainstay beverage of the Florida Come Back Tour.

The bureau chiefs on this tour, Adam and Ryan, are dive bar afficionados. So we went to the Shipwreck, complete with middle-aged, too-tanned, Floridian men and women whooping it up and singing along to “Sweet Caroline.” And later at an outdoor bar called Coco’s with a Canadian band playing where the leader would occasionally yell, “We’re Free!” “In Florida!”

This became a repeated phrase in our rental car rides to check out access in the Florida courts. Because we discovered along the way that Gov. Ron DeSantis, often cast in the press as a far-right grandstander, is actually quite popular. The general consensus among the random fishermen and others we talked to was that they would prefer he not run for president because he was doing such a good job as governor.

And things seemed pretty darn free. I don’t think anyone ever asked us for identification in any drinking establishment we went into during the entire tour of Florida. And I can’t think of when we saw someone wearing a mask.

But we were here to check the courts. So the next morning we drove into Tampa’s Hillsbourough County Circuit Court.

Free Florida was once a model state for First Amendment access, when the courts were based on paper.  Back then, the press had behind-the-counter access to the new filings as soon as they crossed the counter in Hillsborough.

But that all disappeared when the local clerks switched over to e-filing. Access was left in tatters with most documents locked away from public view unless a specific request was made with review coming days after filing.

The clerks had argued that the state Supreme Court required them to redact the filings for private identifiers. But last year, when the high court moved to undo that requirement, local clerks fought against any change. The Supreme Court removed the requirement anyway.

So the clerks no longer needed to redact. We were going to the local courts to see if in fact the clerks had heeded their high court, or whether they just kept doing what they wanted to do, and kept redacting and delaying access.

In Hillsborough, a tall, supremely elegant Black woman who worked as a supervisor explained the system. She said the staff was still redacting. It all took place in a “back room” where no one was allowed unless they carried court identification.

She brought us to a records clerk who prints out filings for a dollar a page and told us that she redacts the documents yet again before handing them over to anyone asking for a copy. As with every management level official we met on the trip, Karen, the supervisor, was well aware that the rule had been changed by the high court. But the redaction policy in Hillsborough had been kept in place.

We hit the wall that ended our questions when Karen was told by her boss that nobody was supposed to be talking to the press. We were then referred to a public information official for the county, i.e. not for the court,  who works, as Karen told us, in a section of the county building even she cannot enter.

(Art by Carlos Ayala/Courthouse News)

It was time to get back on the road. So we drove on to Siesta Key to find an immense, white-sand beach, and the same clear, warm Gulf water. The local bar called Gilligan’s Island was set up as you might imagine a movie set where the locals simply wander in and out and order drinks. They were almost all white skinned by birth but deeply tanned by locale, mostly somewhere in the middle years of life and dressed in various states of casual beachwear.

It was Friday night, and within the small strip of bars and restaurants were gangs of young women apparently intent on drinking liberally. While three-wheelers rolled up and down the strip offering free rides from bar to bar, the drivers making their money from the tips.

But it had to be an early night for us. I had read about Hemingway’s deep-sea fishing, and wanted to find out what it was all about. And it was the weekend so no courts were open.

So we had set up a trip offshore with “Captain Chuck” and “Danny-o” to motor 14 miles out into the ocean and set out some lines.

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