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Less than public

Judge limits online access to domestic case files.

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The Pulaski County circuit clerk's website is “Proud to Announce,” the handout at the courthouse proclaims, “online court records.”

Public documents contained in civil, criminal, domestic, probate and real estate filings have always been available at the courthouse for inspection. Files went online in January.

But there's a catch. Not everything that is public is being made public online. Domestic files still require a trip to the courthouse, because Circuit Judge Vann Smith has ordered they not be put online. The excuse is that the files may contain Social Security numbers and names and addresses of children. In theory, however, this information should not be in the files. To include it is to violate Supreme Court rules.

Smith, who as administrative judge of the circuit is the arbiter of what records go online, initially allowed domestic court (which would include divorce and custody cases) to be fully open online. But in January, he rescinded that, instructing the circuit clerk's office to post only orders and decrees in domestic cases.

In March, he additionally ordered that certain criminal case documents — such as felony information, cover sheets, bench warrants and arrest disposition reports — be removed from the web as well. These, too, are public records in the courthouse.

His thinking, Smith said, on disallowing unregulated viewing of domestic cases, is that “if we put this out on the Internet maybe we are exposing these children to somebody who might be a predator.” He offered no examples of such a happening elsewhere.

Smith said he decided to pull the criminal information after learning from Steve Sipes, court administrator, that Social Security numbers might appear on one of the four documents, which come as a packet from the prosecutor's office.

Sipes said the criminal documents now offline come under one electronic code that the county clerk's office can access to create a record at the courthouse. He said the felony information sheets don't usually include Social Security numbers, but that culling them would increase the workload of those in charge of putting cases in the automated system.

Last July, the state Supreme Court issued an administrative order that spelled out what records should be available “remotely,” or in electronic form. The court requires that such things as listings of case filings, dockets, a register of actions, judgments, orders and decrees be made available. Everything else is left to the discretion of the court.

Administrator Sipes said state law used to require that Social Security numbers, names of children and dates of birth and addresses be included on complaints. That law was changed in August 2005, however; now such information is supposed to be placed in separate confidential filings, not on the face of the complaint or divorce decrees. Some lawyers don't abide by that rule, Sipes said, and so he recommended that such documents be removed from online inspection.

So how many divorce complaints include Social Security numbers? A check by the Arkansas Times of 55 cases pulled from filings in the first weeks of January and April found only one complaint containing a Social Security number. Many did contain children's names and birthdates.

Sipes said that when the Supreme Court's committee on access was debating what should and shouldn't go online, the argument had been made that “embarrassing data” — such as allegations of adultery, etc. — should keep domestic complaints offline. However, he said that was not a “direct rationale” for the decision to keep such filings off the Internet. Absent the problem with Social Security numbers, Sipes said he didn't think a majority on the committee would have recommended keeping domestic filings off the Internet for that reason alone.

A minority would have, however. Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, who was on the public access task force that advised the committee, said that some members were “strongly in favor of privacy regarding everything.” He said the Supreme Court's order was “a good conclusion” that favored an “open approach to court records.”

Pressure from litigants and lawyers to keep dirty laundry offline is “not a factor” in his decision to keep complaints offline, Smith said. There isn't the manpower now in the county clerk's office to redact errant Social Security numbers, Smith said, but he hoped that that option would be available in the future. For now, the possibility that somebody might violate a Supreme Court rule is keeping thousands of public documents out of the reach of Internet users.

The information — errant Social Security numbers and all — is available at the courthouse.

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