Monday, June 17, 2013

The paywall to public records in Thurston County (Part 2)

Read part one here. But, just in short court records are somewhat public in Washington State. Protected if not by written law, but by legal tradition. Also, they're expensive in Thurston County. To the point that they might be providing more revenue to the Clerk's office than they cost to provide.

So, here's some additional additional thoughts about how to change and what to change:

1. Other portions of Thurston County provide public records in a similar fashion at no direct cost to the user. For example, the Board of County commissioners provides records going back through the early 20th century online for free.

2. Possibly provide non-certified court documents for free. Currently, there are two types of documents provided by the Clerk's E-commerce system: certified (which are mailed) and non-certified (which can be downloaded. Certification is important to legal professionals, because it means the document is a true copy of the original. I suppose non-certified would be more important to folks like me, who are curious and would only read the documents as reference.

I also suspect that this wouldn't cost much to implement. Because of the high barrier to access right now, most likely the bulk of the revenue from the E-commerce system comes from lawyers seeking certified copies.

3. If not on the open internet, make non-certified copies available through the library. Timberland Regional Library (of which I am currently a trustee, so full disclosure there) provides access to closed databases.

4. Apparently, the Clerk's office has digitized documents going back to 1847. I cannot imagine the wealth of historic value locked up there. Currently though, you can only access documents back to 2000.

But, because the database in only usable on one browser (which is used by less than a third of internet users) and you can only search by case number, the historians use of this system is seriously limited.

5.  There is hope.

The County Clerk is an elected position. And, the current clerk is retiring. Her former deputy (Linda Enlow, no website) and current deputy (Yvonne L. Pettus) are both running for the position.

It is possible that our access to public records of the local courts could become a campaign issue. And, modernizing our access and making the system more usable could be possible under a new clerk.

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