Texas Clerks’ Bill Would Wreck Online Court Access

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A long-planned statewide database making it easy to access court records online from all of Texas’ 254 counties could be thwarted by a bill working its way through the state House.

In 2012, the Texas Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration contracted with a third-party vendor to develop a system to implement mandatory e-filing of court records and ultimately make those records accessible online.

That online access system, re:SearchTX, is already available for use by judges and will soon be available to attorneys and the public — unless House Bill 1258 is passed.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, would allow counties to “opt in” to the system with the authorization of the county or district clerk and approval of the county commissioners’ court.

“We want to see us move forward with an electronic system that’s more accessible, more user-friendly,” Clardy said. “But let’s do it in a way that’s thoughtful, that’s deliberative and protects not only the duties and responsibilities of our county clerks but also protects the privacy rights of our citizens, the people we represent.”

Nearly 170 counties have adopted resolutions supporting the opt-in privilege, but half of all the state’s county and district clerks have indicated they won’t opt in if given the choice.

Clardy filed the bill on behalf of the county and district court clerks, who are wary of the statewide access system. Several clerks explained their opposition to re:SearchTX during a Tuesday hearing of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee.

The clerks said the database will undermine their authority to decide how, when or if court documents are made available online, and they’re concerned about being held liable if any sensitive information gets online before it has been redacted.

“Because of the risk and liabilities that re:SearchTX poses, counties should not be mandated to have to participate in this database,” Parker County District Clerk Sharena Gilliland said at the hearing.

There’s also a financial consideration: clerks can currently charge up to $1 a page for court documents, so their departments stand to lose money if the public no longer has to go to a courthouse and pay printing fees.

Guadalupe County Clerk Teresa Kiel said that one alternative might be to provide a statewide database of index information about court cases that would link back to a county — which may have their own online database, or may require people to request court records in person.

“While reSearch:TX will be the largest, single most significant modernization in the history of this state, I am truly concerned that we are more worried about a historic modernization event versus sensitive data concerns of people,” Kiel said. “We are truly concerned about what may slip through the cracks.”

Lisa Hobbs, former general counsel for the Texas Supreme Court, told the committee that they should trust the state’s highest court to make decisions about access, rather than allow 254 individual clerks to grapple with “all these tough issues.”

Hobbs said there are “great benefits” of the statewide court records database, even for lawmakers themselves.

“Whenever we are discussing judicial policy, tort reform, other issues that come through this [body’s] purview, one of the things we’re often most frustrated about is we don’t have the information about what’s happening in our courthouses across the state of Texas,” Hobbs said. “A statewide database would allow us to collect data on what types of cases are being filed … all kinds of information that would help judicial policy makers make more informed decisions on reform that comes through their committee.”

Rebecca Simmons, chair of the Judicial Committee on Information Technology, which recommended e-filing and the records database to the Texas Supreme Court, said the committee has no intention of allowing sensitive data or restricted documents to be viewable online.

Simmons said lawmakers should ask themselves what path is right and just for Texans.

“Which path forward? A path for a unified statewide system at a low-cost, available for judges, lawyers and the public?” she said. “Or are we looking for a non-statewide, disparate expensive system that really does not promote public access to justice?”

Madison Venza, southern regional bureau chief for Courthouse News, also testified against the bill Tuesday.

Procedures for accessing and viewing court records vary vastly from county to county, Venza said, making it impossible for reporters to provide daily coverage of what is happening in every court in the state.

“A statewide centralized system would be a big step forward in allowing the people of Texas to know and understand what is happening in the courts that they pay for,” Venza said.

HB 1258 was left pending in committee Tuesday.

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