As Florida’s public access “matrix” — a complex set of permission levels which restrict access to court records — is being taken as a model to follow by some states, we thought it worth looking once more at what the matrix has done to what once was excellent press access in Florida. The Courthouse News bureau chief, Ryan Abbott, toured the courts of Florida trying to review court records. Here’s what happened:
Abbott started at the southernmost point of the state in early October. At the Key West courthouse for Monroe County Circuit Court, he walked into the clerk’s office and politely asked to inspect a complaint in a case that had been filed the day before, based on a docket record seen on a public terminal at the courthouse. A counter clerk told him the complaint was in the Odyssey case management system but not publicly available. She told him the only way to see the complaint was to print it out for the price of one dollar per page. So Abbott paid six dollars for a printout.
From there he drove to the Marathon branch of the court, where the counter clerk told him that new cases must first be docketed, redacted and then assigned a case number, a process that takes a day or two. She said a new case can only be inspected if a case number is provided first. Since there were no public terminals through which to find case numbers for recent filings, Abbott left without reviewing a filing.
At the Plantation branch of the court, Abbott asked to see the new complaints filed that day. The counter clerk told him that her office had three days to docket and open a new file. The clerk said the journalist must wait for the docket to appear on the court’s website, then call the branch with a case number, pay over the phone by credit card, and then wait for a copy of the complaint to be delivered via email. She said that in order to inspect the case for free, a reporter must wait for the filing to be docketed and opened online, record the case number, then return to the clerk’s office and ask for the cases to be printed out. No images were available online, and there were no public terminals at the courthouse. Abbott left without reviewing a filing.
He then drove north to the courthouse for Miami/Dade County Circuit Court and asked a counter clerk for a copy of a complaint filed two court days earlier. The complaint had been docketed but an icon representing the image of the complaint was grayed out, meaning it could not be opened.
The counter clerk said he could not allow Abbott to review the case for free. Abbott then asked if he could pay for a printout at a dollar per page. The counter clerk said normally that would be the case, but this complaint could not be printed. A supervisor then invited the journalist into his office to explain that the document had not yet been sent over to his office from “tech services,” which handles redaction by automated software. The supervisor further explained that the redaction software regularly breaks down, but tech services does not inform the rest of the clerk’s office of the breakdown. When the software is not broken, and a complaint image is successfully sent over to the clerk’s office, it must be hand-redacted by court personnel before it becomes public. The supervisor expressed frustration with what he termed “a broken system” and rhetorically asked what could be expected from a county that could not even pay for his business cards.
In reviewing the court’s records, Abbott observed that the current delay for free inspection of new complaints filed in Miami is roughly eight court days. In other words, the court is withholding new filings for eight court days after the day of filing. In the paper era, in the same court, new civil actions could be inspected as soon as they crossed the counter. As a matter of routine on the courthouse beat, journalists in Miami/Dade checked the stack of new civil complaints at the end of the day and looked through the filings from that same day.
Abbott stopped for the evening in Davie, Florida, to attend a fundraising dinner for the First Amendment Foundation. Columnists Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen spoke on the theme of public access to government records, training their wit on the electoral process in Florida and the Division of Elections.
In the morning, Abbott set out for Broward County Circuit Court. In the clerk’s office, he asked to look at the most recent civil complaints. He was sent to the “copy window” where two window clerks told him new filings could not be seen until they were “validated.” Validation, they explained, is the process of reviewing the documents and redacting any confidential information. They said validation is not done on request. Once validation occurs, the filings are available on the court’s website and the clerk’s office public terminals at the same time.
Based on observation, the amount of delay ebbs and flows in Broward, at times falling behind by three or four days and then being caught up to one day. In order to review the flow of filings — the electronic equivalent of the paper stack of new filings — a reporter needs to pay $1 for a search of a series of case numbers. During his visit, the most recent filing Abbott could inspect was from the previous day.
On this first stage of the Tour de Florida, Abbott found a public access system that had been among the best in the nation taken over and destroyed in the transition to electronic filing.