Hamilton County courthouse unfairly keeps information from the public, lawyers say

CINCINNATI -- Call it an unintended consequence of the legal action surrounding Cincinnati's homeless encampments.

Several First Amendment lawyers are shining a spotlight on Hamilton County courthouse practices they argue could be unconstitutional.

Patrick Kabat was among several attorneys who on Tuesday filed a letter with the court requesting public access to the filings in the case and the court's rulings.

They were surprised when their own letter was "locked" on the Hamilton County Clerk of Court's website so that it wasn't available to the public, said Kabat, director of the First Amendment media and entertainment law practicum at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

They were even more surprised when an assistant county prosecutor explained that keeping records "locked" from the public on the clerk of court's website is standard practice in Hamilton County, he said.

"It's a real affront to the public's right of access," Kabat said.

Online court records are handled that way in Hamilton County to protect from identity theft in case any filings contain social security numbers or other personal information, said Triffon Callos, the chief of staff in the Hamilton County prosecutor's office.

"It's not specific to this case," Callos said. "It's the standard operating procedure of things."

Kabat said concerns about identify theft are not a valid reason to keep public records off the website, especially records that are filed electronically. Other courts around the country are able to avoid problems with identity theft and make records available to the public, he said.

Lawyers and representatives of the media with special passwords are able to access court documents that haven't been sealed by a judge, and members of the public can obtain records through public records requests.

Kabat said that barrier shouldn't exist, and not putting the records online rather than sealing them "is a distinction without a difference."

He said it's especially important for the public to have access to records in the homeless encampment case.

"Whether you agree or disagree with the homeless bad is not the issue that animates the severity of the constitutional issues," he said. "Proponents and opponents should be equally offended that they don't have all the information at their fingertips on this."

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