Court files sealed in error; new policy set

 The Pinellas court clerk says sealing the files was an honest mistake, and says he'll make sure it doesn't happen again.

Published June 24, 2006

CLEARWATER - Pinellas court clerks mistakenly erased 25 civil cases from all public records, Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke said Friday, leading him to change policies in an effort to ensure such mistakes are not made again.

Burke, who made the case files public Friday, said all the errors appear to be honest mistakes and said there is no indication clerks hid the dockets from public view as a favor to people they knew.

Still, he said he hopes to install a policy in which perhaps only certain managers can remove a docket from public view, as opposed to the policy now that allows any deputy clerk to do it.

Burke also will change the office's computer system to allow managers to seal files without removing the existence of the entire case from public access; the current computer system seals the entire docket if the file is sealed.

Also, the chief judge in the circuit is reviewing other secret cases, some of which may be made public when his review is complete.

The changes come after the St. Petersburg Times asked Burke to review whether any secret dockets existed in Pinellas County.

The newspaper made its inquiry after Miami Herald reports of the existence of secret dockets in Broward County in which influential or high-profile people have had their cases removed from public view. Those people include a former speech writer for President Bush, prosecutors, judges, and a former elections supervisor.

The state Attorney General's Office is investigating that secret docket.

A review of the 25 cases deputy clerks removed from the Pinellas public docket reveals no one with particular influence or power. The cases are mostly divorces, domestic violence situations or paternity suits.

Perhaps the most noteworthy figure in the files is Dr. J. James Rowsey, who filed a negligence suit against the state's Board of Regents in 2004.

Rowsey resigned as chairman of the University of South Florida's ophthalmology department in 1999 after an investigation revealed he had used an experimental surgical knife on patients without their permission.

The sealing of that file and docket is curious because it was so short-lived: A judge ruled it should have been filed in Hillsborough County. Why it was sealed is unclear.

State law often requires judges to seal some parts of court files. But the sealing of a docket, which shows that a case exists, along with the parties involved and what has happened in the case, is more rare.

In many of the 25 cases improperly sealed in Pinellas, parts of the case file, such as Social Security information or child custody reviews, were legally sealed by a judge, but a deputy clerk mistakenly sealed the docket as well.

"We just coded the file the whole way instead of just that specific document," Burke said.

In many of those cases, anyone could have looked at the file if they had the proper case number. But the file's very existence - along with the case number - could not have been learned by reviewing public dockets.

The 25 dockets that have been improperly sealed go back as far as 2001. Burke, who has been clerk for about 18 months, said it's not such a bad record for deputy clerks to have made 25 errors out of the more than 200,000 cases filed in that time.

Burke said the clerk's office also mistakenly sealed the dockets in 11 cases in which lawyers filed motions for attorney fees. Though the law allows for the files in those cases to be sealed, Burke said he and Chief Judge David Demers recently determined the dockets should be public. Those 11 dockets were made public Friday.

Another 24 dockets have been sealed based on orders from judges. In 14 of those cases, judges issued "general seal orders" in which Burke said it's questionable as to whether the dockets should have been sealed, too.

In the other 10 cases, judges specifically ordered the dockets sealed as well as the case files.

Burke said Demers plans to review those 24 cases to determine why judges ordered the cases or dockets sealed and to determine, along with the judge who sealed the case, if the dockets should be made public.

In addition, the clerk's office has sealed the dockets of 187 petitions for domestic violence injunctions, more commonly known as restraining orders, in which the complainant alleged sexual violence.

Demers issued an order to seal those records in 2004 based on a belief that people who claim they are victims of sexual violence have a right not to be identified in public records.

Burke said Demers is working on an amended order that he believes will make clear that the dockets in those cases should be made public.

"We anticipate that there will be an amended administrative order that will address the question of access to the docket," Demers' spokesman, Ron Stuart, said Friday.

Burke said it's likely those case files also will be made public, with names of alleged victims redacted.

"We may have been overzealous" in withholding those records, Burke said.

In those cases, the Times believes the entire file is public record, according to a public records request the newspaper submitted to Burke's office Tuesday.

In Hillsborough, Circuit Court Pat Frank has said 14 cases have been sealed since January 2004. Due to a computer glitch, the cases do not show up on the computerized public docket.

Among them is a case involving the Tampa Police Department, police Chief Stephen Hogue and the city of Tampa. The clerk's office said it would not allow access to the case file without a court order. However, other documents obtained by the Times show the case involves a Tampa police officer who wanted to block access to his medical records during an internal affairs investigation into potential steroid use.

The internal affairs file showed the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. The case was sealed by Hillsborough County Circuit Judge William P. Levans

--Times staff writer Carrie Weimar and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.