In Part 1 of this 3-Part series I pointed out what the Electronic Access Policy guidelines consisted of when it came to offering public access to court records. In Part 2 I will be discussing what policy was put into place at the Circuit Court Clerks office under the watchful eye of Chief Deputy Clerk Keith Brin.
A short recap of Part 1 : Clerks are allowed (but not required) to make available electronic access to the entire public at no cost. However, clerks offices are allowed to eliminate certain sensitive information. This electronic access is to be made available during office hours on terminals located on the premises.
Years ago, real estate agents, mortgage lenders, and other interested parties were offered the opportunity to remotely access delinquency notices, pre-foreclosure notices, foreclosure notices, etc. from the recorders office by paying a small initial fee along with a monthly fee and no long term commitment. There was a short ‘beta testing’ period followed by total access by anyone desiring the ability to access the information remotely, usually on their office computer or laptop. What this meant was no more spending hours at the recorders office looking over recent filings. No more traffic hassles, parking fees, body scans, limited cell phone usage, expense of eating out, etc. No more need to spend hours playing catch-up on things that still needed your attention when you returned to your office.
With the advent of remote access to recent delinquency filings a real estate agent, for example, could have their stamped, addressed envelope or flier, offering their services, ready to drop in the mailbox on their way home (or better yet show up on a doorstep the next day). Would they have an advantage over other agents who were not signed up for the remote access or may have limited time to visit the courthouse for fresh, daily data? Would they have a ‘foot-in-the-door ahead of everyone else looking for business from short-sales and foreclosures? Usually new data was available shortly after the recorders office closed (around 5:00 PM) so being able to pull up fresh data at home, after supper, had a tremendous advantage over others. It was better than having a key to the recorder’s office!
Now let’s take a look at the Circuit Court Clerks office back in March of 2009 and how some literally got ‘keys’ to the office. That is the time that the clerks office rolled out their remote electronic access to the court’s records. Like all new systems, it may have required a few months of hands-on ‘beta testing’ by actual users to tweak it before a full release. However, this remote electronic access appears to have taken on a ‘favored status’ with few being allowed access even upon request. Attorneys who became aware of the remote electronic access were often told that it didn’t even exist and were thus turned away. I have heard that one attorney was even thinking of suing the clerks office for being denied access. As you can see from the list below, the remote access program began on March 1, 2009 and continued to be limited to a select few as late as September 2011. That’s 2 1/2 years of ‘beta testing’ and refusal to allow others the same type of access. Are you beginning to get my drift of the inequality of this remote offering?
While attorneys offices, investigators, info researchers, etc. continued to spend massive amounts of time and expense at the clerks office, often waiting for a terminal to become available, a select few were able to multi-task in the convenience of their own office or home. With an initial fee of $125 plus an annual fee of $42, they incurred little or no additional expense such as having to increase their office staff to cover for time spent away from the office. What a huge advantage these select few had over their counterparts when it came to being able to be the first one contacting potential clients who may need their types of service. Remote electronic access meant cost savings, time savings, convenience, advantage over competition, reduced office staff, and so much more.
As I pointed out in Part 1, the Electronic Access Policy also requires that “All courts and clerks shall employ appropriate security measures, procedures, devices, and software to protect the courts records”. Many of the select few who were granted remote access have stated that they had not been subjected to any “security check”. You may even recognize a name on the remote access list of someone who was fired by the Circuit Court Clerk for being “untrustworthy” and might have had difficulty passing a security check.
The reason we titled Part 1 as (un)Authorized Access is because these select few did nothing wrong and simply paid a fee for what they thought was ‘Authorized” access. Little did they know or play a part in setting up a program for remote dissemination of court records in electronic form that had NOT been authorized/approved by the courts or a judge. Nor did they seem to know that the Policy clearly states that there shall be NO FEE for electronic access. (Part 1)
Coming up in Part 3: Reporting on the tug of war battle over who the records belong to once the sliver began to fester and several judges became aware of the remote access for the first time, along with the final decision.
Stay tuned! Better yet, follow us on Twitter so that you don’t miss the conclusion.