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Sunlight now pours into the Florida courts

May 9, 2023

In the great of arc of litigation between this news service and court clerks over access to newsmaking complaints, a most remarkable metamorphosis has taken place in Florida where clerks and administrators have transformed what was the worst access in the nation into what is now the best.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

From worst. To best. Florida courts have done an amazing 180 on First Amendment access.

It started with a tour through Florida in 2020 when Courthouse News bureau chief Ryan Abbott serpentined his way from Key West to the Panhandle.

In the tiny town of Madison, he found the bones of a time when a reporter could walk into the clerk’s office and ask what had been filed that day. A clerk in the courthouse for a town of 3,000 souls kept a handwritten intake log and handed him the new complaints he asked for.

But in the rest of Florida, the move to electronic filing had torn to pieces the tradition of transparency. Many court clerks displayed an image of a padlock on their websites where the PDF of a new complaint should have been.

In order to unlock the public court record, a reporter needed to email the clerk’s office and wait for it to be hand-redacted. By the time the complaint could be paid for, and reported on, it was old news.

Switch to Florida now: New complaints in public categories are posted within five minutes of receipt. Journalists can review them remotely for free, statewide.

And just recently, the Florida e-filing portal authority and Chair Karen Rushing installed a tracker that allows reporters to set up an automated alert on new filings in big cases. That setup helps fast and accurate reporting on the twists and turns of major litigation.

For example, in the high-publicity battle between Governor DeSantis and Disney, our reporter was able to set up an automatic email notice that tells him when any new filing is made in the state court case.

What caused the change?

No one thing by itself.

From on high, Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston supported a return to transparency in the court system.

The Tour de Florida by the bureau chief, and a second tour two years later, may have helped show the clerks that journalists are not so bad.

And there was federal litigation handled by media lawyer Carol LoCicero.

But the most surprising part of the dark-to-light transformation has come from within the court clerks and portal administrators. For years, they battled against on-receipt access by journalists. But then they changed, supported openness in the courts, and showed themselves to be helpful, friendly, thoughtful and constructive.

As a result, Florida courts are now more open and transparent than any in the nation, better than federal courts and better than any other state court.

Contrast Florida today with the gang of courts vying for the bottom spot in First Amendment rankings. It’s a big gang.

There’s Oregon, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia. Clerks and administrators in those states restrict First Amendment access to new civil actions — a regular source of news as shown by the Fox-Dominion and Disney-DeSantis cases — with a combination of shade factors.

The common dark policy is that they seal new cases inside a database while clerks, at their own pace, do administrative work. The policy takes a centuries-old source of news in American courts and trashes it.

Eighth Circuit Judge Ralph Erickson aptly summarized the tradition when he spoke from the bench last year during oral argument in a Courthouse News case: “What we're saying is that, oh, for about 230 years, you can walk into a Missouri courthouse, into the clerk's office, and say, ‘Hey, can I see what's been filed today?’” 

OK, but what now puts the courts of Florida, the third biggest state in America by population, at the very top of First Amendment rankings?

Well, they give reporters access to new civil filings at the time, or within a few minutes, of receipt. Ah, but so do federal courts and state courts in California, Texas, New York and many more.

On-receipt access makes Florida good but not the best.

Florida courts also give journalists remote access to the new actions. But so do the federal courts and many state courts.

Good but not the best.

Florida courts do not charge for remote access. Contrast with federal courts that all charge fees and many state courts that do the same.

But New York and individual courts in California and Texas also give on-receipt, remote, free access to new civil actions.

Florida moves into the top tier. Still not the best.

Ah, but no other state court allows journalists to track new filings in big news cases automatically and immediately. And Florida does.

That combination — on receipt, free, remote, plus automatic notice — makes the Florida courts number one.

And all of it shoots sunlight back into the courts of the Sunshine State.

Categories:Civil Rights, Courts, Media, Op-Ed, Regional

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