Archive for Friday, January 27, 2006

County, court in online records battle

January 27, 2006


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.


pelliott 12 years, 1 month ago

Free and open records is a hallmark of a free society is so true. I can see copying fees or downloads, but to restrict the reading of records effectively can bar people from protecting themselves in a reasonable way.

Jamesaust 12 years, 1 month ago

Is "costs $1 a pop" proper English or just slang? Does it belong in a newspaper?

While the State is free to charge $1 "a pop" to cover their information retrevial expenses, I'm unsure what basis they would have to prevent others from providing the same for free. The court records do not carry a copyright under federal law and anyone and everyone is free to use them as they wish ONCE they obtain access to the original. Johnson County already has the original of their own cases.

If heavy users, such as attorneys, find $1 too expensive, then - just like title companies using land records - someone will see the business opportunity and maintain their own private record-retrieval system, paying the State $1 one-time to copy the record and then recovering the expense privately at (say) $0.50 per use (perhaps a 3 uses of the document on average over time).

Here, Kansas seems to be trying to introduce the equivalent of a copyright on material that federal law forbids (and the U.S. Constitution gives the feds exclusive control over copyright).

Terry Bush 12 years, 1 month ago

According to Kansas Attorney General Opinion No. 95-64, issued to Johson county authorities on June 20, 1995,

"The Kansas open records act (KORA) requires access to all public records, unless they are permissibly or mandatorily closed pursuant to some specific legal authority. While a county may, through its exercise of home rule, establish a proprietary computerized system which allows computer access to certain public records on a paid subscription basis, this arrangement does not alter the applicability of the KORA to public records nor does such a proprietary system alter the nature of a public record. A public agency may establish subscription fees and other charges for on-line access to computerized public records through the use of proprietary software. Public records accessed through such a system remain public records, and must also be available upon a record request, at a fee not exceeding the actual cost of their production. Cited herein: K.S.A. 21-3914; 45-215; 45-216; K.S.A. 1994 Supp. 45-217; K.S.A. 45-218; K.S.A. 1994 Supp. 45-219; K.S.A. 45-220; K.S.A. 1994 Supp. 45-221, as amended by 1995 H.B. 2203.

The KORA currently provides that a public agency may recoup the actual costs connected with providing access to or copies of public records (this actually is meant to help prevent excessive record requests from businesses - in state and out - who make their living off collecting and repackaging - for sale - information contained in public records). What is an actual cost is a fact issue.

For more information about the KORA see

HOWEVER - The KORA currently allows courts to make up their own rules with regard to access to court records. All district courts are subject to rules passed by the Kansas Surpreme Court. The proposed new rule(s) appear to be a turf battle between local court systems and state computer geeks wanting to find new ways to generate funds.

If anyone cares a great deal about getting at local court records easily and "for cost" (or free), the answer is probably to (a) Contact the Surpreme Court to express your views and opinions on what should be done and/or (b) contact your state lawmakers about making changes in Kansas laws (K.S.A. 45-215 et seq) that allow courts to change the normal KORA rules.

cee 12 years, 1 month ago

The real turf battle is between the state court system and the local court system. The state wants the high usage counties (such as Shawnee and Johnson) to pay the fee so that they can use the excess funds for the state court budge. Johnson County wants to provide the information for free as a service to its citizens and users. The State made this rule only after it discovered that Johnson County intended to provide the information for free.

Jamesaust, the private record-retrieval idea, while its a creative idea, probably would not be cost effective. There is little interest in most court record outside of the litigants. The real valuable information available on this system is tracking activity in a case. This information is constantly changing and would require frequent updates.

Godot 12 years, 1 month ago

Talk about taking us back to the dark ages. Are they referring to ALL public records, including real estate values and deeds?

Godot 12 years, 1 month ago

Ok, never mind. I reread the first sentence.

Jamesaust 12 years, 1 month ago

No, no...I'm not saying that it is a "cost effective" idea but rather hinting that the article's viewpoint that the new program is too expensive probably isn't true. I predict that no alternative program will arise because $1 is not excessive.

State trial courts produce almost nothing of value with regard to records. There's no written opinion, only procedural records.

Why the public should provide this for free, I'm at a loss to explain.

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