Opinion and Forefront

FARGO: Investigating a court record? Good luck

August 20, 2011

Anthony FargoWhen we talk about the benefits of government transparency, we often focus on the executive branch in regard to open records and the legislative branch in regard to open meetings.

The third branch of government—the judiciary—doesn’t get as much attention. That may be because courts are usually exempt from federal and state access laws. Happily, the U.S. courts have a long history of openness that has usually prevented them from dispensing justice in secret.

In Indiana, as in other states, statewide court rules provide the framework for access to proceedings and records. Indiana’s rules generally presume openness, with the usual exceptions for juvenile proceedings and some family cases.

But in the 21st century, access means that people can go to the Web and quickly find out if their kitchen contractor gets sued a lot or the babysitter has a criminal record. And there, Indiana falls short, perhaps dangerously so.

Kathryn Dolan, the public information officer for the Indiana Supreme Court, tells the story of a call she received from a probation officer in Arizona a while back. The officer was seeking to verify information from a probation candidate about his criminal record in Indiana.

Dolan had to break the news that there was no way for her or the probation officer to check out the person’s story in a reasonable amount of time.

That’s because, at present, there is no centralized system available to the public or even the courts that would let you look up someone’s entire history with the Indiana legal system.

That is not to say there are no electronic court records in Indiana. There are more than 20 separate computerized court record systems scattered among Indiana’s 92 counties, and many of them can’t communicate with one another.

A solution is being implemented, but it might take a big chunk of the 21st century for the state to catch up to the 21st century.

The Judicial Technology and Automation Committee, a branch of the Indiana Division of State Court Administration, has courts in 34 counties, representing about one-third of the state’s caseload, hooked up to a case management system called Odyssey. This includes the Marion County traffic court, the busiest court in the state.

Courts began using Odyssey in 2007, and JTAC continues to train court personnel to use the system and to license the software for the local courts. The task is a bit daunting. There are 2 million cases filed annually in Indiana in 400 courts, according to a report by Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard earlier this year.

Odyssey allows court personnel and the public to search for information by the names of the parties to a case, the names of attorneys, or case numbers. There is even a function that allows you to search for names with similar spellings, in case you can’t remember whether it’s “Doe” or “Dough.”

The courts don’t have to pay for the installation or training, and public access is free.

None of this functionality comes cheap, of course. The JTAC had hoped to have the entire state connected to Odyssey by 2017, at a total cost of more than $90 million. The money comes from a case filing fee and federal and state grants. The JTAC asked the Legislature to increase the fee from $7 per case to $10 temporarily to speed the process, but the legislators earlier this year cut the fee instead, meaning it may take longer to get Odyssey in place statewide.

Odyssey is accessible now at www.courts.in.gov. Click on the link to Court Case Public Records Search.

Dolan says the fact that the system is accessible to the public for free is important to JTAC and court personnel statewide.

“The public has to be able to walk into court and know that their dispute will be decided fairly,” she says. “Access to the system provides that confidence.”•

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Fargo is an Indiana University journalism professor and member of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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