Supreme Court restricts online access to information December 15, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Supreme Court restricts online access to information Senior Editor Responding to growing concerns that private and confidential information may be widely distributed through the Internet and other electronic media, Florida Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead has issued an order setting interim limits on what information can be electronically posted. He also created a committee to draw up final rules.The order establishes a Committee on Privacy and Court Records to begin work on a uniform statewide policy to ensure that sensitive information is filtered out of court records before they are placed in media like the Internet and bulk electronic access systems, such as dial-in services.“Current regulation of confidential information is minimal at best,” Anstead said.“Because it will take time to develop a uniform policy, I am directing that bulk electronic distribution of court records cease temporarily.“ However, I have provided for several exceptions, such as allowing the chief judges of the courts to authorize distribution of documents that have been properly screened and are of significant public interest.”The order tracks recommendations of two separate advisory bodies. An earlier report by the Florida Judicial Management Council had urged that the Court act to protect the public. Earlier this year a legislative group, the Study Committee on Public Records, reached essentially the same conclusion.At the heart of these recommendations is the growing concern that information like Social Security numbers, medical records, and financial disclosures contained in court records can be used to commit crimes such as fraud or identity theft. Some of this information also may be confidential under state or federal law, but no uniform mechanism is now in place to see that it is removed before electronic distribution.In an earlier report, the JMC noted that court clerks follow a variety of policies on making court records public, and most do not post records on the Internet. Those who do have different guidelines about what is or is not made electronically available.“This inconsistency is itself a potential problem, because legal rights of privacy and access normally must be treated the same statewide,” the court said in a press release announcing the administrative order. “One of the more common complaints from Florida residents involves the placement of divorce documents on electronic distribution networks. The JMC noted that these records commonly contain detailed and deeply personal information about the private lives of the two parties and their children, unfounded or speculative claims of wrongdoing, and detailed information about financial assets.Frequently, confidential information is placed in documents with information that is otherwise not confidential.”Other states and the federal court system are also studying the issues, the press release noted.While the new committee is doing its work, the court ordered that no court record as defined in Rule of Judicial Administration 2.051(b)(1) can be posted electronically. Excepted from that order are:• Court records that are defined by state law as “official records.”• A court record may be transmitted electronically to a party or attorney in that case.• A court record may be transmitted to a governmental agency or agent authorized by law, court rule, or court order to have that record.• A court record posted that has been requested individually may be transmitted if the court clerk has manually inspected it to ensure it does not include confidential or exempt information.• A court record that the chief judge has determined to be of significant public interest, provided the court clerk has reviewed it to ensure removal of confidential or exempt information.• Progress dockets that contain basic information about a case, such as parties’ names, scheduled hearings, orders, names and addresses of counsel, provided that no confidential or exempt information is included.• Schedules and court calendars.• Court records on traffic cases.• Appellate court briefs, orders, and opinions.• Public records that have been inspected by the court clerk and which may otherwise be viewed at a public terminal at the clerk’s office, provided confidential or exempt information has been removed.Anstead also ordered that all existing dial-up or Internet access systems to trial court records, including subscription services, be terminated as quickly as possible and in any case no later than January 1.The order also appointed the members of the Committee on Privacy and Court Records. The chair is Jon Mills, director of the University of Florida Institute for Governmental Responsibility and former state House speaker.Other members are:•Tallahassee attorney Kristin Adamson, a member of the Bar’s Family Law Section.• Andrew Z. Adkins III, director, Legal Technology Institute, University of Florida Levin College of Law.• 15th Circuit Chief Judge Edward H. Fine.• Professor A. Michael Froomkin, of the University of Miami School of Law.• Orange County Clerk of Court Lydia Gardner.• Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Jacqueline R. Griffin.• Supreme Court Clerk Thomas D. Hall.• Daytona Beach attorney Jonathan D. Kaney, Jr.• 11th Circuit Judge Judith L. Kreeger.• Charlotte County Clerk of Court Barbara T. Scott.• First Circuit Chief Judge Kim A. Skievaski.• Bay County Judge Eugene Smiley.• 12th Circuit Court Administrator Walt Smith.• Eighth Circuit Judge Larry G. Turner.Justice R. Fred Lewis will serve as Supreme Court liaison to the committee.The order and press release can be found on the court’s Web site at www.flcourts.org.