CHARLESTON – Three of Kanawha County’s seven circuit judges now allow subscribers to an online service to view documents in cases assigned to them.
On May 10, Chief Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit signed an administrative order granting electronic access to subscribers of Circuit Express for cases assigned to her, Judge Carrie Webster and Judge Tera Salango.
Judges Charlie King, Todd Kaufman, Duke Bloom and Jennifer Bailey still won’t allow access to documents in their cases.
Based in Fraziers Bottom, Circuit Express is a subscription service that provides online access to public court records in 35 circuit courts across the state. The service, which started more than 20 years ago, primarily is used by attorneys. But anyone can subscribe. The West Virginia Record has a subscription.
“This order shall clarify that respective judges of this circuit may, at their discretion, allow electronic access via Circuit Express to public court records in cases assigned to them,” the May 10 Administrative Order states. “The public, litigants, counsel and subcribers shall still have access to public records, in person, at the Office of the Circuit Clerk of Kanawha County.”
It goes on to note that cases or documents that have been sealed won’t be available.
Tabit said it comes down to accessibility.
“I believe courts should be fair, effective, responsive and accountable,” she told The West Virginia Record. “And that means being accessible. Not only to attorneys and litigants, but to the public and to the press. This facilitates that.
“And, by the end of 2021, everyone will have electronic filing via the statewide system that is supposed to be operational by then.”
The state Supreme Court is in the process of creating an online system that would include all 55 counties.
Butch Evans, owner of Software Computer Group which owns and operates Circuit Express, said he thinks access to some Kanawha County files will benefit his company.
“We’ve received a lot of calls over the years saying that if we don’t have the Kanawha County images, people not going to sign up,” he told The Record. “I think it’ll be good for us. These people who had reservations about subscribing might sign on now.”
Before, PDFs of documents in all of the other circuit courts that are part of Circuit Express were available for download. When a subscriber would click on a Kanawha County case, a message would notify them that those documents are not available online.
One of the Kanawha judges who opted against allowing online access to his cases said it is a matter of privacy regarding confidential information.
“Specifically, my concern is that I don’t feel comfortable that provisions for certain information such as Social Security numbers, juvenile information, mental health information, health information includes enough protection,” Kaufman told The Record. “Sometimes, so much of what goes into some files are documents that are filed by pro se litigants or lawyers for self-serving reasons that don’t have legitimate legal reasons.
“The concern that I have is on privacy and confidentiality of statutorily protected documents and how that information gets into court files. Identify theft is a concern. And, kids are involved in some of these cases.”
Kaufman also said Kanawha County is unique in the state for a number of reasons.
“We’re so different than other counties because of the volume of the cases we have,” he said. “Certain cases regarding state agencies have to be filed here. It’s more complex and complicated. What we do in Kanawha County is different.”
He said he has no problem with public access to documents. He just doesn’t believe all privacy concerns have been addressed.
“I hated to see it come down where the judges had to make a decision like this,” Kaufman said, referring to the decision whether to grant online access. “I’ve been on the bench more than 30 years. I’m comfortable with the public having access to every document available to them.”