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Court records should go online, state panel says

But the Florida Supreme Court committee urges stricter privacy limitations on electronic court records.

Florida courts should post most of their records online, but stricter data privacy laws are needed both in the state and nationwide, a judicial advisory committee said Thursday.

Many of the 24 formal recommendations released by the Florida Supreme Court's Committee on Privacy and Court Records revolve around the idea that access to public records--with appropriate redactions for confidentiality--is the key to ensuring government efficiency, accountability and transparency.

Florida has earned a reputation for its "open government" principles, beginning with a 1909 public records law and augmented by the 1967 enactment of a "government in the sunshine" law, which grants basic access to government meetings.

But right now, electronic court records in Florida are tricky to obtain. In November 2003, the Florida Supreme Court barred courts from releasing documents through the Internet or in "bulk electronic form" except in special circumstances. The moratorium came about because a couple of the state's court systems "basically started dumping everything online," including sensitive family law documents, said Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami law professor who served on the committee.

So the state supreme court convened a 15-member committee, composed of judges, lawyers, clerks and court administrators, to study the situation.

In their final recommendations, about two-thirds of the committee supported putting the records online--but only with safeguards. They said that courts must first create new rules clarifying, among other things, what precisely needs to be redacted as confidential information and establishing limits on what can be released. Mental health, medical, drug treatment and family law records, for example, would not be authorized for release except in special circumstances.

But why not continue to make people trek to the courthouse to get the documents they need, asked a minority of the committee. Publishing the records online would lead to "an immediate and pervasive loss of privacy," wrote Judge Jacqueline Griffin of Orlando, Fla.

The entire group urged the Florida Legislature to enact "meaningful privacy reforms" that go beyond existing laws to regulate not just credit reporting agencies but also so-called "data brokers" that aggregate and sell personal information. It also encouraged Congress to take action but warned that any federal regulation should establish baseline regulations and leave states free to build their own more stringent provisions. For the most part, the data security bills introduced in Congress this year propose pre-empting state rules.

Within the next few weeks, the recommendations will be transmitted formally to the Supreme Court, which returns Monday from its summer recess. Any new rules or processes could take years to be implemented and undergo a formal public comment process.

"Where they're going to come out, frankly, I have no idea," said Steve Henley, a Florida Supreme Court operations consultant and the committee's lead staffer. "It's a difficult set of issues, and reasonable people can come out in different places."