Kansas' largest county is taking on the state's highest court in a battle about the public's right to obtain free court records on the Internet.
The Kansas Supreme Court announced late last year that all court records from across the state would soon be available at one place - and one place only - on the Internet: the Information Network of Kansas (INK), which costs $1 a pop for access to records. Any county offering its own locally based program would have to shut it off by March 6, the court said.
But leaders in Johnson County, which spent $4 million recently to build its own free Internet site for court records, are fighting the proposal. They say it will wrongly restrict access to online court records and keep counties from providing a basic public service.
"While a statewide system is laudable and we support that, it should not be done at the cost of shutting off the local access," said Donald D. Jarrett, chief counsel for the Johnson County Board of Commissioners.
It's a fight that has implications for Douglas County. Although Douglas County's courts don't have a free online records site, they used to offer an online records site that cost $180 per year for a membership with unlimited searches.
That program ended last year when Douglas County abandoned its old records software and switched to the system that the Kansas Supreme Court plans to use statewide: a software program called "Full Court."
Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Robert Fairchild said the county planned to start offering the records online through a new paid site once all the files were converted to the new system.
"Instead, they passed the Supreme Court rule, and we really don't have a choice at this point but to make it available through INK, so we will," Fairchild said. "We have had some concerns expressed to us by attorneys about the cost of access through INK."
Ron Keefover, a Supreme Court spokesman, said that in 103 of 105 Kansas counties - all counties except Johnson and Shawnee, which have their own free online systems - the state had paid to help implement the Full Court system.
"To recoup those costs and annual maintenance costs, rather than have it come through additional tax money, the concept is to have the users pay for it," Keefover said. "The contract that INK has proposed is a statewide contract. Without Johnson County's and Shawnee County's participation, we don't have a contract."
Shawnee County is not resisting the court's plan. But the opposition in Johnson County has been strong.
Johnson County commissioners have an ally in Sen. John Vratil of Leawood, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has introduced a bill that would give local court districts authority to offer free records online.
The bill, Senate Bill 353, will have a public hearing Monday morning at the Statehouse.