Florida’s courts were once committed to First Amendment access. With the advent of electronic filing, court clerks organized themselves and took control of e-filing and public access through a for-profit company. Based on an ongoing lawsuit, the company generates millions of dollars in excess “convenience fees,” while locking up public documents. Touring Florida’s courts, Courthouse News bureau chief Ryan Abbott found a smoking hulk of what used to be.
At the counter in the clerk’s office in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Abbott asked to look at recent cases based on docket information from public terminals at the courthouse. He was told by a counter clerk that images of new records were “locked” until they are reviewed by a court employee.
The counter clerk said the whole process takes “up to three days,” an estimate confirmed through observation. The docket is generally posted one day after the filing and the clerk review of the filing takes one to two days more.
From Palm Beach, Abbott drove west toward the inland sea that is Lake Okeechobee. At Okeechobee Circuit Court, he entered the clerk’s office on the first floor and asked to review recent civil complaints. He was directed to a nearby room with public terminals and found that the most recent docketed complaint was three days old.
The bureau chief asked if there was any way to see more recent complaints, through an intake log, for example. The counter clerk told him that a new court filing must first be “reviewed” and “accepted,” or docketed, before it can be seen, “Before acceptance, we do not know a file exists,” said the clerk.
From the giant lake, Abbott drove north along two-lane highways and country roads through Florida’s agricultural heartland. “I went due north to Osceola, just agriculture, wide open, flat fields, little redneck towns and truck stops. Really cool drive. It was a hot, sunny afternoon, early October, radio cranking, fields and tractors and not a whole lot of anybody else.
“I loved it. It was really peaceful. It’s the kind of road where every 10 miles, there’s a truck stop, a gas station and diner. I had boiled peanuts for lunch at a truck stop, had a beer in a trailer park bar, you know one of those bars where you walk in, the record scratches, everybody looks around — ‘Who’s this guy.’”
“Until Osceola, which is getting close to Disney World. It’s more commercial, a lot of strip malls.”
On that warm, sunny day, he entered Osceola Circuit Court and found a chillier environment. On the third floor, he was met outside the elevator door by a desk clerk handing out number tickets. The clerk sent him to a windowless room with a TV monitor displaying ticket numbers.
His number came up and he went to the designated window to meet a combative clerk. When Abbott asked how he could inspect new complaints, she answered, “You can’t do that.”
He said he was a reporter and was confident that he was asking for public records. The clerk told him to go online where, she said, access was “instantaneous.” In fact, online access to the complaints themselves was running between three and four court days behind the day of filing. Abbott asked if there were public terminals in the courthouse, and she sent him to the “information room.”
He found docket information for a case filed that morning, without an image attached but locked. He proceeded to the reception desk in the information room and asked if he could see the document. The desk clerk said it would need to be “unlocked.” Because the end of the work day approached, he didn’t have the time.
The clerk suggested that Abbott register online for access, but then added that registrants needed to be attorneys. Online, a would-be registrant must include a Florida bar number. Abbott left Osceola without seeing any records.
In order to report on a court in the middle swath of Florida, Abbott asked reporter Marilyn Aciego to visit Orange County Circuit Court and attempt to see any recent civil actions. In the clerk’s office on the third floor, a counter clerk told the reporter that the court must “accept and approve” a new civil filing before the docket can be seen both at the courthouse and online.
The related documents must then go through a redaction program, the clerk explained. The goal is to redact new filings within 24 to 48 hours, she said, conceding that the office has fallen behind. On the public terminal at the courthouse, a search for the most recent civil case available for inspection showed that the office was in fact withholding cases for six court days after the day of filing. Noted the counter clerk, “Lots of documents, not enough hands.”
Behind it all was the money talking. In many of the courts, the clerks would provide access right away if Abbott paid a dollar a page for a printout. Through their association and the convenience fees charged by their for-profit company, the clerks had attached themselves to the great river of money that flows through the Florida courts. First Amendment access was left as an empty hulk along the edge of that river.