Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Need a court record? Good luck with that.

Posted By on Tue, Apr 7, 2015 at 3:05 PM

click to enlarge The message is clear at the Terry Harris Judicial Complex records room. The public can pound sand. The one and only public access terminal is down and nobody seems to know when it will be fixed. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The message is clear at the Terry Harris Judicial Complex records room. The public can pound sand. The one and only public access terminal is down and nobody seems to know when it will be fixed.

Don't think for a minute that the court system in El Paso County welcomes citizens who need to access court records.

In fact, Clerk of the Court Lynette Cornelius declares that those records aren't the public's records at all.

"It's my record, because I am the keeper of the court's record," she says in an interview. More from her later.

Up until a few weeks ago, you could go to the basement level of the Terry Harris Judicial Complex, plop down in front of a public terminal and search through cases, read various pleadings as you wished and then print them out. (Note, however, that the terminal was exceedingly slow, ridiculously slow, in fact.) There was a 30-minute limit, but as long as nobody was waiting, you could sign on again and resume your research.

Well, forget that. The terminal went out of commission for an unexplained reason about two weeks ago and won't be operable again until god knows when, according to Pam Lauren, a supervisor in the records department. She tells us the problem has been reported to the courthouse tech staff, but nothing has happened to get it running again.

So meantime, you have to stand in front of a clerk, without the advantage of seeing her computer screen, and have her read the list of pleadings in a case to you. Then you have to decide whether to get a copy of it or not, at 75 cents per page, without the advantage of reading it first. It's a crapshoot.

Of course, attorneys have no such problem, because they, and anyone else who wants to pay the subscription fee, subscribe to an online service that provides access.

Which raises the question, why can't the state of Colorado get its act together and provide such online access to the public?

That's a question raised by Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Council Coalition, who is planning to look deeper into the accessibility of court records in this and other states.

"Why, in 2015, can't we from our computer or laptop have access to real documents? Why do we have to go to some courthouse, and rely on a terminal working or not?" he says in an interview. "It's very frustrating."

Court clerks also cited a newly amended access rule that bars the public's access to certain cases unless they're a party to them, and also requires a member of the public to present a photo ID in order to gain access.

Here's the rule. We can't find a reference in it to a citizen having to present a photo ID for access.

Cornelius says she has no idea when the terminal will be up and running again. She invited us to use a public terminal at 1600 Broadway — in Denver.

As for requiring a photo ID, she says the reason for that is, "because if it's not your record [court case], we have to protect the people's records whose it is. If it's not your record, we're not going to hand it over."

Only those who are involved in the case have the right to access a record, she told us.

Calling all Brown Shirts.

We look forward to Roberts and others taking up the cause of transparency in our court system, as well as other branches of government, so that records that are supposed to belong to the public are accessible by their owners.

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