Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Web cutoff causes Butler backlash

Order from judges burdens Butler office

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - When a pair of Butler County judges shut off Internet access to their courts' records, they opened the floodgates, says Cindy Carpenter, the county's clerk of courts.

Hundreds of citizens have complained to Carpenter's employees since judges Leslie Spillane and Sharon Kennedy ordered Domestic Relations cases removed last week from Carpenter's Web site (www.butlercountyclerk.org) . The move might be a first in Ohio, says Carpenter, who questions its legality and is concerned about the havoc it is wreaking.

"I feel it's like having a nuclear explosion here in our office. We do the best planning to be efficient and accurate, and - boom! - they put on this order without a single warning, and just every single employee in this office is frazzled," Carpenter said. "I feel public records are so important. How can I just tell people, 'the judges deny you access, good luck?' "

James Cissell, current probate judge and former clerk of courts in Hamilton County, said issues such as this one, involving technology and privacy, are emerging areas of law. "No court has to provide Internet access. Nor does any court have to provide documents on the Internet. The question is, if they provide it generally, then what is the law?" he said.

So far, the consensus seems to be this: If a court has a Web site, any information or documents that are not under seal should be provided via that site, said Cissell, who sits on two Ohio Supreme Court committees tackling such matters.

Carpenter sees the July 1 order as an affront to her duty of keeping public records - and she is consulting a variety of groups and officials, including Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, about restoring public access.

Kennedy said Carpenter can consult whomever she wants, but the judge thinks the law and a previous opinion from the county prosecutor supports the judges' action.

Further, Kennedy says, the judges are trying to protect privacy rights by keeping Social Security numbers and other personal information off of the Internet - information that laws require to be included on child support and other documents.

Cissell, however, notes: "As a practical matter, people can get your Social Security number on a commercial site if they want to. So it's available, and to suggest that cutting it out of court records is going to meaningfully hide Social Security numbers is probably mistaken."

Judges Kennedy and Spillane made their order public last Tuesday at a news conference where they responded to a scathing 400-page report by Butler County Commissioner Michael A. Fox, who accuses them of a culture of secrecy.

"Actually, what the court has done is to just confirm one of the main criticisms of the report that I issued, which is that they don't want scrutiny and they don't want accountability," Fox said.

Kennedy said it's a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation. She said Fox is now criticizing the court for taking information off the Internet even though his report said the judges were responsible for releasing Social Security numbers onto the Internet.

Carpenter said she considers her office "collateral damage" in Fox's war against Spillane and Kennedy. The fallout from the judges' order has stretched her 40-member staff to its limits, Carpenter said, as employees field complaints and help people find and copy documents they used to be able to access online and print themselves - at an estimated additional daily workload cost of $500 to $1,000.

Kennedy said Carpenter's staffers have been sending upset people to her, and, "I am going up, pulling the files, and I am calling the people back. I have not found it to be burdensome."

But Fox and Carpenter say the impact is huge. At least a half-dozen county agencies - Children Services, Child Support Enforcement Agency, the Adult Probation Department, Juvenile Court, the prosecutor's office and sheriff's offices - need to check on restraining orders, child-protection orders and other documents in the Domestic Relations Court case files. Attorneys, title searchers and people who perform background checks rely on court records to make a livelihood.

Ironically, even Domestic Relations Court staff now must come to Carpenter's office to obtain information, Carpenter said.

On July 2, a day after issuing the order, Spillane sent a letter to Carpenter, saying that the judges intended only images of documents, not the entire "docket" - a summary of dates and actions in each case - to be excluded from the Internet. But Carpenter says her computer system cannot separate the two. The judges want her to arrange a meeting with the computer supplier and other parties to address that problem. But Carpenter thinks that misses the point.

"The judges do have discretion to seal certain documents," she said. "The fundamental question is: Does a judge of a court of common pleas have authority to restrict a broad category of public records? ... For some reason, our Domestic Relations Court wants to put my office in the position of policing the public record. We're not the redactor of records; we're not the hider of records. Our primary duty is to maintain the integrity of the records.

"And I don't know how I got in the middle of their battle with Commissioner Fox."


E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com

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