On the public agenda from Somervell County Commissioners Court Dec 29 2016, there was an item of a resolution opposing re:SearchTX. I was, and have been, pretty busy, so only today got around to listening to the audio from that meeting to see what was said. Basically, as you can see below, the Texas Supreme Court created a pending order to use re:SearchTX, database of case information that has been e-filed. Sounds like it would work somewhat like Pacer, which I use to look up US District court cases, and would make local county records available via the internet. Somervell County's resolution objects to re:SearchTX due at least in part to saying that county clerks are the custodians of records. Note that right now, if you want to see a Somervell County court record, you cannot do so over the internet. You have to go down to the courthouse, look up the record in a notebook filing system, sometimes the record is online at a computer in the back, but usually you ask for the court case to peruse. In other words, the court cases are not web-based, in the same way Pacer is (You can at any time, for example, go read about the federal Turk case vs Ray Reynolds and Somervell County Hospital District on Pacer)
The Austin American Statesman had an article regarding this, entitled "Texas Clerks Seek to derail web based public access to court records". Appears that this would be civil records only, at least to start, excluding divorce and family cases.
The statewide database, re:SearchTX, holds records from all 254 counties and is backed by the state’s Supreme Court. It currently is used by judges and soon will be available to attorneys and the public — who could search for civil court records and review them, all from the comfort of home.
Clerks say surrendering these records to a privately operated database would violate their role as custodians; the other side says this is an overstatement, and that taxpayers, not clerks, own the records. Clerks also say their departments will lose money with the public no longer having to head to a courthouse and pay printing fees of up to $1 a page. However, their opponents point out that the new system is set up so clerks would benefit from online users.
Audio and rough transcript:
Michelle: Basically what it is is the Office of Court Administration is trying to put in place a system that's already in place for the Federal courts and it's called the Pacer system. But what they're trying to do is they're trying to allow attorneys and judges across the state to access all the court records for every clerk in the state at a very minimal cost. And so, it would divert the money that we collect and sending that down to the state. The clerks across the state are trying to join in together and oppose this new re:SearchTX.. I did look to see how much we collected last year and we collected around 8600 dollars in copy fees and that's something that would be stripped away from us if was to pass. I mean, I know it's not much but it's something
Chambers: Every little bit helps.
Michelle: Whenever attorneys do work, they pass those charges off onto their clients anyway so to me I would think that would just hurt the counties.
Chambers: State Keeps trying to get more and more money like they're doing with the (taxes? collector?) , get you online to do your tags.
Note: Mr Chambers' wife is the elected Somervell County tax-assessor/collector.
Michelle: So I am asking the court to pass a resolution in opposition to this.
Chambers: Alright. I'll read it in the record if y'all bear with me
My opinion about this is that I very much, as a citizen, like to be able to see public records (as well as do my tags) online rather than having to come in. I don't look at it as a way for the state to make money but, in this day and age, a convenience. Likewise for looking up court records. Again, you CANNOT look up local records online from, say your home, or some other location. These are open records, part of the public information system. If the issue is whether a local county clerk has control of the records versus a state system, then is a county ready to spend time and money to create a system to allow internet usage?
And who primarily wants these records? From Courthouse News
To ensure uniformity of online access to court records, the Judicial Committee urged the Texas Supreme Court to mandate e-filing for all court records and to set up a statewide access system run by a third-party software vendor.
That system, a site called re:SearchTX, already is available for judges, and the Judicial Committee hopes it will soon be available for attorneys and members of the public.
According to an October Texas Bar Journal article by Texas Supreme Court Clerk Blake Hawthorne, 98 percent of 3,000 attorneys surveyed by the Office of Court Administration favored a statewide court records access system.
“The survey also showed that many Texas attorneys and their staffs want to be able to search the court records of all 254 counties at once, with the ability to immediately download those records 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Hawthorne wrote.
He said that attorneys are frustrated by the varying degrees of difficulty in getting court information from one county to another.
Sharon Gilliland from Parker County brings up a good point about training
“We don’t object to technology; we don’t object to changing trends of what’s happening in the legal field … we just want to make sure that we’re following the statutes and what is legal,” Gilliland said.
She said the clerks, tasked with redacting sensitive information, are concerned about protecting the privacy of their constituents, “because there’s so much information contained in these records.”
“We’ve never received any formal instructions on what to do about any sensitive records that are out there,” Gilliland said.
From Justice Nathan Hecht of the State of Texas Supreme Court's State of the Judiciary 2017
Electronic Filing and Access to Court Records Access to justice is also improved by easier access to court records, but we must have a statewide system. The Supreme Court has ordered that all filings in civil cases in county, district, and appellate courts be sent to clerks electronically over the Internet. Last year, more than 8.5 million court documents were filed electronically. The savings to lawyers, parties, and clerks has been monumental. In a little over two years, electronic filing will also be required in criminal cases.
The 75th Legislature created the Judicial Committee on Information Technology to develop a statewide, electronic, court document system. The Committee has now recommended that judges, clerks, and lawyers have access to electronic filings through a portal called re:SearchTX, simply by pressing a button. This convenience will greatly reduce costs and delays in litigation. Soon, the Committee will make recommendations on public access to electronic filings, improving transparency for the justice system. The Committee will recommend ways for protecting privacy, preventing abusive data-mining, recovering costs, and providing counties revenue to establish and maintain a statewide system. A statewide system will also provide more information about how the work of courts is changing, what kinds of cases the courts are handled, and what improvements can be made. In planning for the future, this information is crucial.
Texas is a leader in technology. We have three of the world-recognized knowledge capitals: Austin, Dallas, and Houston. A 21st century statewide electronic court record system will save money, improve transparency, and increase efficiencies. The federal courts have used a similar system, PACER, throughout the country for 16 years. The Texas electronic filing and access system will be the largest in the country and will be the single most significant modernization of the Texas courts in history. Bail Reform and Pretri
Michelle said the copy costs were not that significant. And the records actually belong to the public, with clerks as custodians. Will be interesting to see how this plays out.