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Okla. high court to cut off online access to court records

By The Associated Press
03.13.08

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Supreme Court has adopted rules cutting off public access to court records now available on the Internet.

When the rules go into effect on June 10, online access to court documents in the Supreme Court and district courts would be limited to court dockets only.

"The individual pleadings and other recorded documents filed of record in state court actions shall not be publicly displayed on the Internet," according to an order signed by Chief Justice James R. Winchester and four other justices.

The order, released on March 11, described the new rules as an effort to balance the rights of privacy of individuals and public access.

Winchester said protecting individuals from identity theft was the main reason for the adoption of rules cutting off Internet access to court records. He said the court was concerned about publicizing someone's Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and other personal information.

Winchester added that the rules were not permanent and more information may be put on the Internet when the court's computerized system is fine-tuned.

The chief justice could not cite a specific instance where someone's identity was stolen through use of the court's information system in Oklahoma.

Besides eliminating Internet access, the order puts new restrictions on what information the public can access from legal documents filed with court clerks.

The ruling was criticized by Joey Senat, past president of FOI Oklahoma and a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, and Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.

"It sounds like a knee-jerk reaction to technology that gives the public greater access," Senat said.

Thomas said the rules would allow court clerks to make money off copying fees and cause an inconvenience to the public. "I think the court and the court clerks are underestimating the popularity of electronic access to court records," he said.

Justice Steven Taylor dissented and two justices issued a separate opinion disagreeing with part of the decision.

The new rules mandate that lawyers omit "personal identifiers" from all court documents, including home addresses, dates of birth, taxpayer identification numbers, Social Security numbers, names of minor children and financial account numbers.

"What I disagree with is the instantaneous restriction of public access to current public court documents on line," Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote in a separate opinion. She was joined by Justice James Edmondson.

"The court made this decision with input only from the court clerks. Others directly affected by the decision — the bar, the bench, the Legislature, the public — were not consulted," Kauger wrote.

She said the court recently increased court costs by $15 to improve computerization of all 77 county clerk dockets.

"However, as a result of this order, not only is the court taking a giant, 30-year leap backwards to a time when the personal computer was nonexistent, the public is now paying for access to a system which is made inaccessible by the order," Kauger wrote.

Senat said the order did not explain why the court feels a lot of information previously available should now be omitted from court documents.

"This is giving far too much weight to what they consider to be sensitive or private information," he said. "Some information is certainly personal, but that doesn't make it private."

Thomas said the rules open the door for a private company to begin selling information for a profit to people who do not want to go to the courthouse, "go through a metal detector, stand in line and take out their wallet" to pay for copying records.


Update
Okla. limits on records access could hinder background checks
Head of industry group says she knows of no other state that has court-records policy as restrictive as one set to take effect in June. 03.20.08

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