Sunshine state uses fees to prevent sun from shining on judicial records

Florida court system says access to public records will cost $132,000

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When the Center for Public Integrity last summer requested records from Florida’s 17th judicial circuit regarding the procedures and policies surrounding foreclosure cases, officials were more than happy to comply — for a price.

A price of $132,348, to be exact.

Alexandra Rieman, general counsel for the circuit that includes Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, said the public records request would require staff to sort through 149,000 emails. That, in turn, would require 2,500 staff member hours at rates of either $45 or $53 an hour, which added up to the $132,348 figure.

And whatever records the court system did provide would cost another 15 cents a page, Rieman added, without including estimates of staffer hours and hourly rates.

The Center for Public Integrity refused to pay the amount, arguing that the fees were excessive.

Charging high fees for access to public information can undermine public records laws and serve as a back-door way for government agencies to avoid releasing information they want kept private. Florida’s laws and the state courts’ rules allow, but don’t require, the courts to charge for such records searches.

“The problem we have with Florida is that they all claim they have to review emails for exempt information,” said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a group that advocates for open government in Florida. “If you’re asking for information on policies and procedures in an email, what could possibly be exempt?”

Peterson said Florida law requires any fees charged for public records to be reasonable.

"It's a rather transparent attempt to block any kind of practical access to the records," said Thomas Ice, a Florida foreclosure defense lawyer who has tried to get similar records from other Florida counties. 

The Center for Public Integrity on July 15 requested documents related to how judges in the county were directed to handle foreclosure cases after the state implemented a new plan to cut a backlog of pending cases. The Center for Public Integrity's report on Florida foreclosures found that many judges were rushing cases to judgment at the expense of homeowners. 

The court system’s response — three weeks later — suggested court employees would have to review every email that included the word “foreclosure.” They requested a $66,000 deposit to begin work.

When the Center for Public Integrity limited the scope of the search only to emails among judges, the court's general counsel brought the fees down to $7,322, plus the per-page charge. 

The Center for Public Integrity still considered this price too high.

Broward’s fees were far higher than those quoted by several other court systems in the state where the Center for Public Integrity made similar requests.

The 14th Circuit, which encompasses part of the Florida panhandle, said an identical request would carry $436.87 in fees, not including per-page charges. The 3rd District charged $148.11. The 2nd Circuit, which includes the state capital, Tallahassee, estimated the search would costs $76.65.

The chief judge of the 8th Circuit simply called back to tell us he had no such emails. When his records custodian determined there were a few items that might apply, he forwarded them at no cost.

The Center for Public Integrity has asked Broward court officials to waive the fees arguing the records are in the public interest. We are still awaiting records from several other districts.

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