A recent ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court illustrates a common complaint of government agencies and bureaucracies, namely that they haven’t kept up with the expansion of technology.
The court ruled earlier this month that any requests for bulk electronic court case data–basically large downloads or exports of court record information–was now off limits. (Read my story here; the Tulsa World’s story is here. For more on the idea of bulk data downloads from government, check out Web guru Tim O’Reilly’s blog.)
Over the last few decades, Oklahoma county district court clerks have moved their case management systems from paper files to electronic formats. But there are two separate systems, the state-run Oklahoma State Courts Network and the privately run On Demand Court Records. They’ve each evolved over time in response to the needs of district court clerks across the state. There are 13 district courts–including the state’s two largest counties–covered by OSCN; 64 district courts have signed up with ODCR, which is operated by KellPro Inc. of Duncan.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling followed an open records request earlier this year by an Edmond-based firm, INAD Data Services LLC. The company requested electronic copies of all court case information for state district courts and the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Court.
The request appeared to have caught Supreme Court administrators off guard. They responded to INAD’s attorney with a letter in late July. The letter said some court information was confidential under state and federal law. It also said the Supreme Court would be asking the Attorney General’s office for advice. The Supreme Court Administrative Office’s general counsel, Debra Charles, said:
If I am satisfied that all or a portion of the records on OSCN.net can be released in bulk, you should anticipate paying a reasonable fee to search and reproduce all of the public records that can be appropriately segregated for public view. Please understand that, if the electronic records can be reasonably segregated, the cost of a system-wide search of this nature will likely be significant.
We’re still trying to figure out what happened in between that letter and the Supreme Court’s ruling Oct. 8 to forbid release of bulk records. But Oklahoma Chief Justice James Edmondson (the brother of Attorney General Drew Edmondson), sent a letter to INAD’s attorney and state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, dated Oct. 5. The letter, which was effectively a denial of the open records request, stated:
… Copies of all information, documents and electronic court records would encompass cases dating back to 1984 in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. During the intervening 25 years, the other 75 counties have moved to digital record keeping. This literally amounts to millions of pages.
In summary, everything you have requested can be readily accessed through oscn.net or is available on a case-by-case basis at any court clerk’s office in each of the courthouses in Oklahoma. We direct you to oscn.net for full and complete open access to court information.
Later that week, justices issued their ruling.
Justice Edmondson said Tuesday that the ruling was intended to cover only commercial requesters of bulk court data. Other requests, such as those made by noncommercial entities or the media, would be decided on a case-by-case basis, he said. But that’s not explicitly stated in the ruling.
Furthermore, Edmondson said the court signed a contract with KellPro to convert ODCR court case data in preparation for a single, unified Web site of district court information. The contract authorizes the court to spend up to $1.15 million this fiscal year for the data conversion.
Tim Keller, the founder of KellPro, said the contract covers only the data conversion. He expects the Supreme Court will put the work of the unified system out to a competitive bid once the data conversion is finished. In the meantime, KellPro is selling expanded access to court information to members of the Oklahoma Bar Association.
Since hearing about the Supreme Court’s ruling late Monday, I’ve had several conversations with attorney Doug Wilson of Stillwater, who specializes in electronic government information and data. Wilson said the ruling could raise constitutional issues, including one that forbids the state from granting a preference to one company over another.
To play devil’s advocate, I can see why KellPro would like to protect its system of court information. After all, the company’s employees spent time, energy and money pursuing case management system contracts with district court clerks across the state. For a company to come after the fact and request bulk information from their systems doesn’t seem fair.
However, the information isn’t KellPro’s in the first place. They developed the system and software, but the “ownership” stake of the records themselves lies with the people of Oklahoma, whose tax dollars fund the state’s legal system.
It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time the Supreme Court has gotten involved in Web access to court documents. In response to privacy concerns, the court issued a ruling last year that would have stopped online access to court filings across the state. They rescinded that ruling after complaints from the public, the media and open-records advocates.
Written by Paul Monies