Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Clerk asks for Web site ruling


Domestic court judges block info

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - The Butler County Clerk of Courts wants a court to reverse a judicial order that removed all Domestic Relations Court information from her Internet site.

Cindy Carpenter on Tuesday asked Prosecutor Robin Piper to "immediately pursue filing a petition for a writ of prohibition on my behalf." That court order would give Carpenter the legal right to stop complying with the Domestic Relations judges' order.

Piper said he might decide today how to respond to Carpenter's request. On Tuesday, he and his staff were still studying a new Ohio attorney general's opinion addressing the situation.

While Domestic Relations Judges Leslie Spillane and Sharon Kennedy said they shut off the Internet access to protect citizens' private information, Carpenter argues that Ohio law requires her to provide that same data to anyone who comes to her office. She says the judges' order has inconvenienced the public, businesspeople and county agencies; has caused chaos in her office; and is costing taxpayers money.

The attorney general's opinion, which prompted Carpenter to ask Piper for court action, says Carpenter must comply with the Domestic Relations judges' July 1 order "unless a court of competent jurisdiction reverses that order or prohibits its enforcement."

The opinion, which Piper sought in late July, suggested Carpenter might consider challenging the judges' order, as in a 1984 Cuyahoga County case. A court ruled that a clerk of courts did not have to comply with certain judicial orders that were "unreasonable and arbitrary and were not authorized by law."

The attorney general's opinion says information Piper provided about the Butler records dispute "raises concerns about the reasonableness of the domestic relations division's judges' order."

Planning and implementing the clerk's computer system took more than two years - and the plan called for putting records on the Internet, the opinion points out. "It is arguably unreasonable, therefore, for the domestic relations judges to have waited until after implementation of the system to decide that its records should not be accessible through the Internet," the opinion says.

Spillane said she and Kennedy took action as soon as they became aware of privacy concerns. Besides Social Security numbers, Domestic Relations documents also may include information about market values of businesses, bank accounts and medical conditions, Spillane said. All of that information is better left off the Internet, where it is widely available, Spillane said; she's not as concerned about it being released to a limited number of people - those who come to Carpenter's office.

"I don't think the Supreme Court or anyone else is going to find my order unreasonable or arbitrary or not authorized by law," Spillane said.

And she offered another prediction: "It won't end here - and it's certainly not a local issue. This is a problem everywhere."

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com




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