When it comes down to it, you should be able to read court documents in the raw.
Naked, that is. From home.
You can in many places. But not in Hamilton County, unless you’re a lawyer, a reporter or work in law enforcement. Here you have to get dressed and hump down to the county courthouse downtown.
If you want to nose into a cousin’s disorderly conduct charge, gawk into a neighbor’s divorce case or read about an employee’s shoplifting spree, those are all public records. But without a lawyer’s help, you’ll need to take time off from your job, get yourself downtown, pass through a metal detector, trek up to the third floor and either find what you want on a computer terminal or at a counter.
“Anyone can come down to the courthouse and make copies,” says Mark Waters, administrator for Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Tracy Winkler.
But who would want to? Think of all the public records you can read online: home sales on the county auditor’s website; campaign contributions to politicians; the location of the federal prison where your half-brother Rufus is serving 12 to 15. Federal court docs are available for online perusal, too. You have to set up an account and pay 10 cents a page, but you can do it in bed.
Twenty years ago, the court clerk’s office was at the forefront of posting records online. Then-clerk James Cissell snagged the domain name courtclerk.org and Hamilton County’s court records became online fodder in 1996. But because records weren’t scrubbed of data like Social Security numbers, identity thieves had a field day. In 2006, Cissell’s successor, Greg Hartmann, lowered the portcullis and set up the password system in place today. You can run names through the website and find cases. You just can’t open the docs.
Some people would like to change that. One is Aftab Pureval, a Procter & Gamble attorney running for Winkler’s job as Hamilton County clerk of courts this Nov. 1. He sees the clerk’s office as ripe for modernization.
“Accessing the courts can be a hassle and it places an undue burden on working families and the poor,” Pureval says. “Think about people who work by the hour or who work multiple jobs. You have to take time off. You have to find time to go downtown, which either means driving and paying for parking or coordinating public transportation. You have to wait to be served, then you get hard copies of what you need and often have to pay for prints. It disproportionately encumbers the people who often need the courts the most.”
The courthouse — actually three courthouses, with traffic and family courts nearby — is a very busy place. More than 50,000 traffic cases, 40,000 criminal cases and 35,000 civil cases are filed annually, Waters says. If you’ve ever been involved in a criminal case or lawsuit, you might know that case files mushroom in size with the addition of charges, claims, motions, rebuttals and such. Winkler’s office will offer 10 pages of copies for free. After that it’s 10 cents per page.
Waters says there is no move afoot to restore online access to case documents. The problem, he says, is finding computer software that will identify and remove every Social Security number and date of birth. “Even the best systems are only 95 percent effective in removing that stuff,” he says.
Pureval doesn’t see that as an insurmountable hurdle.
“This is like something out of 1985,” he says. “Certainly in 2016, a modern court system should be able to empower its citizens with documents that are publicly available online. Technology is the great equalizer.”
Without online access to case filings, Pureval says people are often forced to hire an attorney.
“Say you’re a small business owner and you want to do a background check on a prospective employee, or you’re a young couple and you want to make sure your babysitter doesn’t have a criminal record,” he says. “You can’t do those things, because you don’t have online access to the records. That’s not serving the public and, frankly, it’s not the way the most modern clerks’ offices operate.”
It’s not the way Butler County Clerk of Courts Mary Swain operates. Her office has provided online access to Court of Common Pleas civil and criminal case docs since 2005, six years before she took office. Online access is a money- and time-saver.
“With our filings increasing all the time, if we didn’t have that service available for the public and they all had to come into the office to look up documents, I would have to increase my staff by half a dozen employees,” Swain says.
The Butler County site does not require user registration and passwords. One click, for instance, opens up a 202-page petition filed by the city of Middletown against AK Steel Corp. on July 30.
“The public is very pleased with being able to search for cases that affect them or that they’re involved with,” Swain says. “They don’t have to come into this office or call into the office to get the information they need or to have my staff pull files and go through files docket by docket to see what’s here.”
Even Shelby County, Ohio, with a population one-sixteenth that of Hamilton County’s, offers online access to court docs. Court Clerk Michele Mumford says the court has been online since 2009. Shelby County is north of Dayton.
“The public really appreciates being able to look something up online and save themselves a trip to the courthouse,” she says. “It definitely frees up the time of the office. We don’t have the phones ringing off the hook like they used to.”
David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center in Cincinnati, wants clients — some of whom are incarcerated — to have the same access to court files as he does.
“It’s time that we go back to being able to pull the records online,” he says. ©