Ron Cunningham: Off line
Published: Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 24, 2012 at 11:33 a.m.
In 1882 Josiah T. Walls, Alachua County resident and Florida’s first black congressman, was sued in a property dispute and ordered to pay the grand sum of $405.
But the former slave turned Union soldier was a fighter. Walls went to the Florida Supreme Court and got the judgement reversed.
And then there was Matilda Brown, who took over the family store in Newnansville after her husband, George, passed away in 1898. She promptly sued the deadbeats who had been sponging off her husband’s generosity.
The details of those and other long-forgotten cases can be found in yellowed, handwritten court documents stored in cardboard boxes in Clerk of the Court Buddy Irby’s records warehouse.
Provided you have the time and patience to dig them out.
Oddly, there was a time when many of those old court records had been scanned, digitized and made available online to anyone who wanted to do a keyword search. But they had to be removed.
In 2004, the Florida Supreme Court issued an administrative order prohibiting county clerks from posting court documents online.
“It only applies to us,” Jim Powell Jr., ancient records coordinator for the clerk’s office, said. “You can find some of them on other websites.”
Details of Walls’s property dispute, for instance, have been posted by the University of Florida. But they may not be virtually displayed by the official custodian of those records.
The court’s concern was over privacy and the potential for identity theft. But making no distinction between modern and ancient records, the order arbitrarily locks away a lot of local history.
“These records can’t be used for identity theft,” Powell argues. “Somebody tries and you’re going to say ‘According to this, you’re 200 years old. I don’t believe you.’”
Powell spends his days converting old county commission records for online consumption — county commission minutes, marriage licenses, census data and so on.
Do some digital digging down into the clerk’s ancient records web page (www.alachuaclerk.org/archive) and you can turn up all manner of tidbits, Records of public hangings. A county ordinance that required permits to carry those new-fangled Winchester repeating rifles.
But court documents from an earlier century? Virtually off limits.
And that’s too bad, because those moldering old records offer fascinating insights into everyday life of a bygone era.
Powell has repeatedly asked the Florida Supreme Court to allow the posting of court documents that have achieved the status of historical records. But so far with no success.
“If we could even post records that are 70 years old, or 100 years old,,,,” he said,
Ironically, the Internet makes tracing one’s family roots or a community’s history easier than ever before.
Except for when it doesn’t, by order of the court.
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