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A Supreme Court ruling means a rare win for public records rights in Florida | Editorial

The Florida Supreme Court has handed down an important — but increasingly rare — open records win that’s going to mean faster access to information not just for the state’s press corps but for all Floridians.

The court last week finalized a new rule that no longer requires clerks of courts across Florida to be responsible for redacting confidential information from civil court documents. That responsibility used to fall — as it should — on those who file the documents, not those who store them.

Many readers might understandably ask, “So what? Why should I care?”

Here’s why: The 10-year-old rule forcing clerks’ offices to examine documents for private information had turned access to public information into a slow-motion proposition.

Clerks’ offices are the repository for legal documents in Florida’s 67 counties. Their ability — or inability — to efficiently process those documents and make them available has a direct effect on the public’s ability to see those documents, a right guaranteed by the Florida Constitution.

The old rule created by the court was gumming up the works to the detriment of the public’s constitutionally guaranteed right to public records, a shortcoming this court’s justices weren’t going to continue tolerating.

The rule required clerk’s offices to peruse documents for confidential information that’s exempt from the public records law, like Social Security numbers and bank account information. According to Carol Jean LoCicero, an attorney representing a coalition of media organizations — including the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun Sentinel — Florida and Vermont are the only two states in the nation that force clerks to examine documents for such information.

Many of those exemptions to Florida’s public records law exist for a good reason. Court documents shouldn’t become a means for criminals to steal someone’s identity or money.

The thing is, it’s the responsibility of the person who files those documents — almost always attorneys and judges — to shield that information from public view, not the clerks who largely serve an administrative role.

But the court’s old rule had done just that: Shifted that burden from the document filers to the document administrators.

In arguing against a rule change, Brevard County Clerk of Courts Rachel Sadoff wrote to the court, “Filers have come to rely on the clerk to remove confidential information as a public service and safeguard.”

Exactly. That’s just the problem. These filers had come to count on someone else to do their work for them.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work, and that’s why so many documents are getting held up from public release so often.

In contrast to Sadoff, the Florida Bar correctly argued that the new rule “removes a burden from clerks and may also help remind all filers of their obligations to ensure what they file does not contain confidential or protected information.”

LoCicero recounted a 2018 experiment where two journalists visited 19 county courthouses across Florida in an attempt to obtain that day’s legal filings. About 75% of those courthouses would not provide the journalists with any civil complaints that had been filed that day. Employees in the clerks’ offices often cited the redaction requirement as the reason for the delays.

Broward County’s clerk of courts, Brenda Forman, warns right on her website that it could take up to two weeks to get court records.

It’s not just reporters who have to wait days at a time to get their hands on documents, to the detriment of the public. It’s nearly everyone.

For example, an association of attorneys that represents low-income clients on housing matters pointed out to the court’s justices that Florida’s already tight deadlines for evictions was made worse by the delays in getting documents from clerks’ offices.

This new rule from the Supreme Court, which takes effect on July 1, probably strikes many readers as an esoteric, administrative exercise.

It’s more than that. It’s removing a barrier to the press and the public getting timely information at a time when public institutions, ranging from the Florida Legislature to the clerks of courts, seem interested in erecting new barriers, creating more delays and secrecy.

In an atmosphere like that, we’ll take the win.

Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to