Claremore Daily Progress

October 8, 2013

Oklahoma legislator looks to broaden Open Records Act

Kristi Eaton
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY —

A state legislator on Tuesday quizzed two court clerks over why public court records aren’t readily available online during a hearing examining broadening Oklahoma’s Open Records Act.

Norman Republican Rep. Aaron Stiles requested Tuesday’s interim study before the House Judiciary Committee to review how the act applies to certain court files.

Stiles questioned Canadian County Court Clerk Marie Ramsey-Hirst and Oklahoma County deputy court clerk Mike Sullivan on their office’s decision to withhold some court records from an online system. Stiles has said that the differing policies among the court clerks in the state’s 77 counties can sometimes force attorneys, reporters and members of the public to drive to courthouses across the state and pay for paper copies when that information should be — and often is — available electronically.

“I fear that some counties are using — are not putting documents online so they can charge the fee for you to come in and get it,” Stiles said, adding that he was not accusing anyone. “I just have that feeling. I have that suspicion.”

Ramsey-Hirst said documents are posted online unless a judge seals them but conceded that she also uses her own discretion to not post documents with Social Security numbers, bank accounts and other information that may anger parties.

Using the online court system to randomly look up a few cases, Stiles showed he was unable to pull any court records in Oklahoma County.

“I don’t see the public interest in not producing these documents online. Do you know why those wouldn’t be available online?” Stiles asked Sullivan.

Sullivan said he couldn’t speak to specifics, but said due to the volume of filings in Oklahoma, putting everything online would be difficult with too few resources available. Stiles pushed back, though, noting there are many people working in the office and that other counties make the same information available to the public online.

“My understanding is you guys scan in at least every single document and it’s a matter of selecting whether it’s available online or not available online,” Stiles said. Sullivan said he could not confirm whether all documents are scanned or not.

The lack of uniformity should go away when a new $13 million filing system database that links all 77 counties, but it has been plagued by delays. Counties currently use two completely separate programs. Thirteen mostly larger counties and the appellate courts are on the Oklahoma State Court Network, while the rest of the counties are on the On Demand Court Records system.

The hearing also examined restricting which court records should be sealed and whether to authorize a civil cause of action for violations of the Open Records Act.

“The ones that bother us are not necessarily the ones that are sealed up in the interest of justice. It’s the one sealed up in the interest of the judge and sometimes the interest of the clerk,” said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.

Open records are important for the public to have faith and confidence in the judiciary, Thomas said.