Sunday, July 13, 2003

Should records go on 'Net?


Butler court's removal stirs controversy

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The more information technology spreads, the more privacy rights are colliding with information-access rights - a clash that has grown acute in Butler County following a judicial order to remove some court records from the Internet.

"Butler County is not alone. Ohio is not alone in facing these issues," said Martha Wade Steketee, a research associate with the National Center for State Courts.

"I believe that this issue is huge for courts and for the administration of justice."

In a case that has drawn significant interest in southwest Ohio and beyond, judges Leslie Spillane and Sharon Kennedy ordered Clerk of Courts Cindy Carpenter to remove their Domestic Relations Court cases from her Internet site, www.butlercountyclerk.org, on July 1.

By law, the records are still publicly available at the courthouse, but hundreds of people have complained about them being shut off from the Internet. Also, Carpenter said, to allow public access, she now must let users onto the computer network in secure employee areas - and that creates security risks.

Carpenter's concerns are legitimate, Spillane said. However, she said, "I think the privacy issue outweighs the inconvenience."

After a 90-minute meeting Friday with Carpenter and computer personnel, Spillane said she and Kennedy still were considering possible remedies. They think Ohio law may need to be changed, and Carpenter's computer system may need to be reprogrammed to exclude images that contain Social Security numbers, dates of birth, bank-account numbers and other sensitive personal data.

The judges say laws require that data to be kept on Domestic Relations filings.

Carpenter proposes a simpler, cheaper fix: "the 99-cent black-marker solution, redacting the part they're concerned about," then making the blacked-out document available to the public.

But Carpenter, who cannot legally alter documents, said the judges refused to discuss that option.

"They think the problem is that court orders are being viewed on the Internet,'' Carpenter said. "I think the problem is that judges order personal information to be included in the public record. So we have two different ideas of what the problem is. The answer is to stop the private information from getting into the public record in the first place, not restrict access to the public records."

Meanwhile, in neighboring Hamilton County, Clerk of Courts Gregory Hartmann is keeping an eye on the Butler dispute.

If Hamilton County judges were to pull the plug, "I think it would set off a big uproar; our office is much larger than Butler County's," Hartmann said, noting that his Web site, www.courtclerk.org, draws about 25 million "hits" a month; www.butlercountyclerk.org sees about 14,000 visits.

Shortly after Hamilton County courts went online in 1996, Domestic Relations judges adopted a procedure for people to exclude images of documents from the Internet, although summaries of case actions still may appear unless a judge seals them.

Nathaniel Livingston Jr., a Cincinnati boycott supporter and one of the leaders of the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, filed a lawsuit challenging that process last month. He alleges it is a mechanism that unfairly allows high-profile, powerful people to shield themselves.

Hartmann, who is named in the suit, says hundreds of people have used the procedure to block views of their documents, that judges routinely grant those motions and Livingston's suit "seems like a frivolous piece of litigation."

Carpenter's computer setup doesn't allow documents to be "shut off" from public access. The system could be reprogrammed, she said, but initial estimates for that exceed $15,000.

The availability of the Hamilton County procedure may have spawned an increasing number of requests for Butler County's Domestic Relations information to be kept off the Internet, Spillane said.

She said there were about a half-dozen such queries in the past six months. Those requests, she said, were the impetus for the Internet shutoff order.

She says it had nothing to do with Butler County Commissioner Michael A. Fox's recent report, which calls for greater openness and accountability in the county's juvenile and domestic relations courts.

Fox called the judges' order "a judicial tantrum" designed to curtail scrutiny of the judges' actions.

If the judges are truly motivated by privacy concerns, they need to stop making the issue more complex than it really is, Fox said.

"Collection of information does not require disclosure of information," he said. "They can keep the personal information in their administrative files. It's as simple as that."

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E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com




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