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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

State Supreme Court Limits|Online Access To Legal Records

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - The Oklahoma Supreme Court is cutting off Internet access to court records, for the stated goal of protecting people from identity theft. The court's March 11 order states that the Supreme Court adopted the rules "in an effort to balance the rights of privacy of individuals who use Oklahoma's court system and public access to court documents, and are applicable to all documents filed in the district courts and the Oklahoma Supreme Court."

When the order takes effect on June 10, Internet access will be limited to court dockets. Anyone seeking a copy of a document will have to go to the courthouse where it was filed.

The rules require that lawyers omit "personal identifiers" from all court documents, including home addresses, dates of birth, taxpayer identification numbers, Social Security numbers, names of minor children and financial account numbers.

Justice James Winchester said the rules are not permanent, and that more information may be put on the Internet when the court's computerized system is fine-tuned. Winchester said that first, the court must hire a director for its computer network and get software that can automatically omit personal identifiers that were not suppressed when the case was filed.

Five judges concurred with the rule, two dissented in part and one wholly dissented.

In a separate opinion, dissenting in part, Justices James Edmondson and Justice Yvonne Kauger compared the rules to "throwing the baby out with the bath water." They asked why, after Oklahoma has been a leader in online court access, would it move to the end of the line and wait to follow other states?

The dissenting justices said it makes more sense to test the effectiveness of the new redaction rules and allow a few counties to make documents available online to work out the kinks, rather than test the new rules on all 77 Oklahoma counties.

Justice Kauger also objected that the state Bar, the bench, the Legislature and the public were left out of the decision - court clerks were the only ones consulted.

Oklahoma State University journalism professor Joey Senat called the ruling a "knee-jerk reaction to technology that gives the public greater access."

Senat suggested that the rules could open the door for private companies to begin selling the information for a profit to those who don't want the hassle of going to the courthouse.

Oklahoma County Court Clerk Patricia Presley told the Daily Oklahoman the rules go "too far." Presley said the records "belong to the citizens and should be open and available for public inspection." Presley said the new rules will require additional employees to handle the added requests. She said far less restrictive measures could be taken to achieve the same objective.

But Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith said she has problem with the rules. Smith said that she was never comfortable with the information being on the Internet.

Beginning June 10, prosecutors, judges, court clerks, lawyers, title companies, law enforcement, journalists and citizens will have go the extra miles for access to court documents, because of the order that Justice Kauger called "a 30-year leap backwards to a time when the personal computer was nonexistent."

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