Oklahomans, dust off those rotary phones and pull those heavy old TVs out of the garage, we’ve just taken a step back 30 years.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court dropped a bombshell Tuesday afternoon when it issued a rule regarding privacy and public records of court documents. Concerns over identity theft now mean that detailed court records previously available on the Oklahoma State Courts Network will not be available online after June 10. You can still go to the courthouse to get the court filings, though.
Ironically, you can read the court’s ruling here–on its Web site.
The court also ruled that certain sensitive information such as drivers’ license numbers, medical records, employment history, individual financial information can be omitted from state court filings in district courts.
Sounds reasonable enough, right? After all, identity theft is a real threat, with Oklahoma ranking No. 23 in incidents per 100,000 people. (More here at the Federal Trade Commission.)
But the Supreme Court’s ruling is a blow to open government and accountability, said Joey Senat, journalism professor at Oklahoma State University.
“It seemed to come out of nowhere, in particular with no discussion with stake holders,” Senat said of the ruling. “They are trying to stop a problem they are not sure actually exists, but they’ve cut off public access.”
The ruling really concerns two issues. The first is whether or not sensitive information should be included in public court filings. The second is whether the court filings themselves should be available on the Web.
Senat could only speculate as to why the court decided to issue its ruling, with apparently little input from others apart from court clerks. Maybe they saw one two many stories like this one from NBC News last year.
The ruling doesn’t alarm just journalists or open government experts. It affects you, too. If you need to check out your doctor or your daughter’s new boyfriend, you’ll now have to take a trip to your county court house rather than looking them up online for possible lawsuits or criminal complaints.
A couple of justices did dissent in part from the majority ruling, saying this:
Currently there are no applicable Oklahoma statutes, court rules, or court orders in place to address the publication and distribution of electronic state court records in Oklahoma. Establishing such statutes or rules should be a collaborative effort of the bench, bar, court clerks, the Legislature and the public.
Senat said local open government advocates are weighing how to respond to the ruling. But you can be sure we’ll follow up with additional stories in Thursday’s The Oklahoman and online at NewsOK.com.
Written by Paul Monies