Oklahomans' access to court records on the Internet will be limited by rules adopted Tuesday by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court said individual pleadings and other recorded documents filed in state court actions shall not be publicly displayed on the Internet. People wanting to see this information can go to the courthouse and view it. The court said it issued the rules in order to balance the rights of privacy of individuals who use Oklahoma's court system and public access to court documents. The rules affect operations of the state's district courts. These rules regarding privacy and public access to court documents will be effective June 10. The rules also say people filing cases should omit personal identifiers such as Social Security numbers, taxpayer identification numbers, names of minor children, dates of birth, financial account numbers and home addresses. Omitting these things from documents was called "outrageous overreaching” by Joey Senat, past president of FOI Oklahoma and an Oklahoma State University journalism professor specializing in freedom of information. These are "life affecting decisions” which could affect things such as who you are going to marry, Senat said.
Dissenting opinionSupreme Court justices Yvonne Kauger and James Edmondson concurred with limiting personal and private information from documents, but dissented in restricting public access to the court documents on the Internet. Their dissent said the court's decision was made with input only from court clerks while others affected by the decision — attorneys, judges, the Legislature and the public — were not consulted. "Courts have a responsibility to balance the risk of harm that may be rendered by the disclosure of sensitive information with the need for a fully open court record,” the dissenting opinion stated. "I think the court and court clerks underestimated the popularity of access to those records. The public and all kinds of businesses and individuals are going to scream,” said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association. Justices concurring with the rules were Chief Justice James R. Winchester, Justice Rudolph Hargrave, Justice Joseph M. Watt, Justice Tom Colbert and Justice John F. Reif. Concurring in part and dissenting in part were Justices Kauger and Edmondson. Dissenting was Justice Steven W. Taylor. Justice Marian Opala did not participate in the rule-making. The dissent by Kauger and Edmondson said the court recently increased court costs by $15 to provide for improved computerization of all 77 county clerk dockets. "However as a result of the Court's 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,” the dissenting opinion states. Senat said the rules sound like a knee-jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist. All the Supreme Court has done is cut off the public's greater access to its courts, he added. Thomas said he doesn't think the justices realize that this is a great opportunity for someone to buy copies of court filings, put them on the Internet and sell them for a profit. The dissent said the rules should be changed to include provisions that clearly establish that the burden is on the filer of documents to remove restricted information. Court employees should be immune from liability for unintentional disclosures of information, and documents currently available online should continue to be made available with private information omitted by court clerks, the dissenting opinion states. "Whether it is a development we welcome, the simple fact is that the tide of new media may not be ignored or dodged,” the dissent states.
AT A GLANCE
Computer network•Thirteen counties, including Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, are in the Supreme Court computer network. •All appellate courts also are included.