When it comes down to it, you should be able to read court documents in the raw.
Naked, that is. From home.
You can in many places. But not in Hamilton County, unless you’re a lawyer, a reporter or work in law enforcement. Here you have to get dressed and hump down to the county courthouse downtown.
If you want to nose into a cousin’s disorderly conduct charge, gawk into a neighbor’s divorce case or read about an employee’s shoplifting spree, those are all public records. But without a lawyer’s help, you’ll need to take time off from your job, get yourself downtown, pass through a metal detector, trek up to the third floor and either find what you want on a computer terminal or at a counter.
“Anyone can come down to the courthouse and make copies,” says Mark Waters, administrator for Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Tracy Winkler.
But who would want to? Think of all the public records you can read online: home sales on the county auditor’s website; campaign contributions to politicians; the location of the federal prison where your half-brother Rufus is serving 12 to 15. Federal court docs are available for online perusal, too. You have to set up an account and pay 10 cents a page, but you can do it in bed.
Twenty years ago, the court clerk’s office was at the forefront of posting records online. Then-clerk James Cissell snagged the domain name courtclerk.org and Hamilton County’s court records became online fodder in 1996. But because records weren’t scrubbed of data like Social Security numbers, identity thieves had a field day. In 2006, Cissell’s successor, Greg Hartmann, lowered the portcullis and set up the password system in place today. You can run names through the website and find cases. You just can’t open the docs.
Some people would like to change that. One is Aftab Pureval, a Procter & Gamble attorney running for Winkler’s job as Hamilton County clerk of courts this Nov. 1. He sees the clerk’s office as ripe for modernization.
“Accessing the courts can be a hassle and it places an undue burden on working families and the poor,” Pureval says. “Think about people who work by the hour or who work multiple jobs. You have to take time off. You have to find time to go downtown, which either means driving and paying for parking or coordinating public transportation. You have to wait to be served, then you get hard copies of what you need and often have to pay for prints. It disproportionately encumbers the people who often need the courts the most.”