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04-15-06 Protecting open records or trampling public rights?

By Shelley Grieshop

  An order from the Ohio Attorney General's office to remove Social Security numbers from court files has created confusion and a bit of defiance from court officials across the state.

Protecting open records or trampling public rights?<br></br>

  Clerks of court in eight counties in Northwest Ohio, including Mercer, Van Wert, Darke, Shelby, Paulding, Defiance, Henry and Putnam counties, told The Daily Standard they have reservations about removing Social Security numbers from copies of original court records.

  "How can we say this certified copy we're giving out is a true and correct copy of the original document when it's been altered?" Defiance County Clerk of Courts Jean Ziegler said.

  Eight of nine county clerks interviewed -- all but Auglaize County Clerk of Courts Sue Ellen Kohler -- refuse to begin the redaction process. Those clerks believe the process to prevent identify theft and other criminal acts involves tampering with original documents, an action they are not comfortable with.

  Removing information from court files or keeping some files separate also could be a violation of the Ohio Public Records Laws. The public should be allowed to freely leaf through all types of court files, except juvenile cases, which are kept confidential.   In February, signs were placed on all filing cabinets in Auglaize County Common Pleas Court in Wapakoneta prohibiting the public from viewing any court cases. General case information is now available from two on-site computers or by requesting copies of particular files.

  "If someone asks to see a specific case, we review the file for personal information and then make a copy. The personal information is then redacted from the copy before we give it out," Kohler says.

  Newly-filed civil and domestic cases in Auglaize County now only include the last four digits of Social Security numbers, Kohler explained. But Social Security numbers still appear on all criminal cases, meaning those files currently are not open to the public.

  "We have to have Social Security numbers in criminal files to identify the defendants. It's a matter of business," she says.

  The state attorney general's office in 2004, 2005 and in recent opinions has ruled "that persons have a constitutionally protected right of privacy to Social Security numbers, and their release by a public office is prohibited by federal law."

  For the most part, the attorney general opinions have been ignored. Clerks are skeptically awaiting direction on how to redact the numbers.

  The Ohio Supreme Court currently is writing the "how to" instructions, says Mark Anthony, spokesman for Attorney General Jim Petro's office. A release date for the new rules has not been announced.

  Anthony admits the state has no intention of providing county courts with funds for extra staff and hours to get the job done. Extra dollars would have to come from county budgets, he explains.

  Judy Sonnenberg, the clerk of courts in northern Henry County, says thay office has experienced layoffs recently and there are no available funds.

  "Yet we've been accused of dragging our feet on this," she said.

  Like several others area counties, officials in Henry, Defiance and Fulton counties decided jointly two years ago to remove "sensitive personal information" from their domestic relations cases. Domestic cases, such as divorces and dissolutions with custody issues, typically include bank account and credit card numbers, dates of birth and addresses of children, as well as other intrusive tax information.

  The three counties don't extend the redaction practice to criminal or civil cases. Also, domestic cases older than two years still have the personal information included for the public to view, Sonnenberg says.

  Some area courts have instructed local attorneys to submit their court filings without Social Security numbers. Others are removing personal information only upon request for copies.

  Darke County Clerk of Courts Cindy Pike doesn't see any point in overhauling the current court system.

  "In 10 years here, I've had only one questionable request," she says. "If I felt people were trying to get that information for something illegal, I'd do something about it. Right now, I think it's unnecessary."

  None of the clerks contacted could recall any theft of personal information from court documents that led to a criminal act in their county.

  Ziegler said she doesn't understand why state officials waited so long to tackle the problem.

  "I can't imagine why the 'powers that be' didn't envision some of this a long time ago," she says. "Don't they have attorneys and other educated people who might have thought putting all this information out there wasn't a great idea?"


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