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Why shouldn’t court records be made available online?

Seems clear to me that they should. What’s the case against?

Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has noticed a curious trend in the state’s legal system: Folks are increasingly representing themselves in legal disputes, forgoing lawyers altogether.

“They really need legal help, but they don’t feel like they can afford it,” Hecht said.

But ditching a lawyer doesn’t make justice free. Obtaining legal records can be a big hurdle — time away from work, trips to a courthouse that may be far from home and copying fees that can run a dollar per page for documents that often run hundreds of pages.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands of people for whom getting a court record is probably impossible, at least practically,” said Hecht, who has long sought to help poor Texans navigate the legal system.

That’s just one reason he’s excited about efforts to deliver court records from all 254 counties to Texans’ fingertips through an online portal. Some urban counties — Dallas, Harris, Travis and Tarrant, for instance — individually put their records online. But scores of other counties rely only on old-fashioned paper, necessitating trips to the courthouse and making statewide research next to impossible.

The Texas Supreme Court, through its Office of Court Administration, has worked for years on a one-stop legal records shop. Called re:SearchTX, the project is coming out in phases, with plans to eventually provide widespread public access.

The Office of Court Administration last September extended a contract with Tyler Technologies, a Plano-based company that already has integrated every Texas county into a filing system allowing attorneys to electronically send documents to the clerks. Under that four-year $72 million extension, Tyler would keep that system running through 2021 and eventually open it to the public.

The public portal would be funded through fees that attorneys pay to use the system. It would function like PACER, a widely used federal portal that charges subscribers small fees for access.

“It’s just crucial,” Hecht said. “It’s important for transparency. The media and the public at large have a very fundamental interest in the public justice system.”

But county and district clerks are fuming. They’re pushing to kill the project in a wonky battle involving local control and privacy concerns, multimillion-dollar contracts and confusion about how the portal would ultimately work.

“Clerks have been doing this forever,” Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder said last week at rollicking meeting of the Judicial Committee on Information Technology, which advises the state Supreme Court. “It’s a duplication of effort.”

If the records get breached, he later told a reporter, “it’s our ass.”

At least 168 counties have adopted resolutions opposing re:SearchTX. They’ve found friendly ears in a Legislature that often shrugs off arguments for more local control on other issues, such as oil and gas drilling and penalizing polluters.

Court records are public documents, and they should be available online. That doesn’t mean they need to be unsecured or indexed by Google – it’s fine to require a logon account with a verifiable password to view records – but the days of having to trek to a District Clerk’s office to retrive paper files, for which one needs to pay a per-page printing fee, need to be over. I’m sympathetic to Clerk Wilder’s position, so if a county has already digitized its court records, that should be sufficient. It’s the counties that haven’t taken this basic step that need to be brought into re:SearchTX. Of course, one reason why many of those counties are reluctant to do so, and why HB1258 has been filed to kill the data project, is because these counties make money retrieving and printing those paper files. Sorry, y’all, but that’s not a good enough reason to lag behind the times. Justice Hecht is correct. Court records should be available online. If a county isn’t already doing that and has no plans to do it in the short-term future, they should be made to participate in re:SearchTX.

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3 Comments

  1. Terrance Jewett says:

    The problem is that counties that already have online access and have good systems will be forced to used the state system. Prior to efile, Harris had efax which was better and free, now we are forced to use efile which added other problems. My main issue is being forced to use another system by the people that gave us efile.

  2. Kenneth Fair says:

    On the other hand, it would be better to have one system that you can use anywhere in the state. Having to learn how each county does it differently is time-consuming and leads to errors.

    I said years ago when e-filing first started that I didn’t understand why the state didn’t just license PACER from the feds. PACER is robust, fairly easy to use, and familiar to anyone who has a case in the federal courts.

  3. mollusk says:

    Guys, this is where y’all are missing the point. Robust, reliable, and free isn’t in keeping with modern ideas of Texas gummint. Since The Free Market has to be better at everything, that’s what we now use – including subbing out court and county record filing and online access to outside vendors.

    C’mon, we’ve all had 37 years to drink the Kool Aid.

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