Texas Court Clerks Wary of Single, Statewide Access to Records

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas clerks of court are at odds with the state over its plan to implement a statewide online access system for court records, to be run by a third-party software vendor.

At a packed meeting of the Judicial Committee on Information Technology on Friday, clerks expressed concerns that the database will undermine their authority to decide how, when or if court documents are made available online.

Clerks were also concerned that the system raises financial and liability issues.

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.

Some counties require attorneys to pay subscription fees, which Hawthorne said can be expensive when an attorney does not regularly work in a county, while other counties charge $1 per page without a subscription.

Texas’ online database will charge 10 cents a page and a maximum of $6 per document.

Sharena Gilliland, district clerk for Parker County, a suburban county in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro Area, said clerks are not totally opposed to an online database, but believe courts should be able to decide whether they want to opt in or out of the system.

At the committee meeting, attorney Carlos Soltero said that Texas law allows its Supreme Court “vast” authority to promulgate rules, but Gilliland said that based on the state constitution, district and county clerks are custodians of records in their courts and must provide written consent for records to be placed on the internet.

“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.

While the committee intended to vote Friday on a number of recommendations to give to the Supreme Court on rules of access to re:SearchTX for judges, attorneys, and the public, they voted to postpone making any recommendations on public use for 45 days, to get more input from county and district clerks.

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