Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TOP STORY > >Shredding dustup before high court

By Stephen Steed

Special to The Leader

The 17 Pulaski County circuit judges overstepped their authority two weeks ago when they ordered Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Pat O’Brien to stop shredding papers as part of his effort to digitalize courthouse records, O’Brien said in an appeal filed Monday with the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court told the attorney general’s office, which is representing the 17 judges, to file an answer to O’Brien’s appeal by noon Wednesday.

O’Brien said by telephone later Monday that he hopes the state’s high court will address the issue in the short time remaining before O’Brien leaves office in January.

“There’s something of a 10-day rule mentioned (in the court’s administrative proceedings), but really it’s up to the discretion of the court,” O’Brien said. The holiday season makes a small window even smaller.

All 17 judges joined in two separate but identical orders issued on Nov. 12 and Nov. 15 ordering O’Brien to “cease and desist” shredding paper documents as they’re converted to electronic files. That has been a two-year project of O’Brien and his staff. It has cost about $425,000 so far but will save the county some $1.5 million over the next 10 years in storage costs, he has said.

The judges maintain they’re not against digitalizing court documents and moving to a “paperless” society. They have contended — in news accounts and in private meetings with O’Brien the past three months — that a few kinks need to be worked out of the system before paper paper documents are shredded.

O’Brien said he has tried to address the judges’ concerns but believes the process is working fine. He resumed shredding paper documents in November after a short break of not doing it, at the request of Circuit Judge Vann Smith.

Once he resumed, the judges in a rare order signed by all 17, told him to stop.

O’Brien’s writ to the Supreme Court says the judges “took the extraordinary step” of preventing the clerk’s office from carrying out its duties as allowed by Arkansas law and by authority of the Supreme Court.

The filing also says the judges “have overstepped their authority and breached the separation-of-powers doctrine between the judicial branch and the executive branch of government.”

“Essentially (circuit clerk) has been enjoined from doing his job,” O’Brien said in his appeal, asking the court to grant him an immediate oral hearing to make his case in the two orders of Nov. 12 and 15. The 17 circuit judges cited their “inherent authority over the operation of the courts” as legal reason for the cease-and-desist order to O’Brien and his staff.

O’Brien’s writ says the circuit judges cited no state law or court precedent in reaching that conclusion.