Should court documents be available online to public?

Ismael Perez By Ismael Perez

March 19, 2017 at 11:06 p.m.
Updated March 20, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Should court documents be available online to the public?

Should court documents be available online to the public?   J.R. Ortega/jrortega@vicad.com for The Victoria Advocate

An online database that could make it easy to access court records from all 254 Texas counties is opposed by county clerks.

The statewide access portal called re:SearchTX has been developed since 2012 and was made available for judges in 2016. The access system is aiming to expand its accessibility to attorneys and the public soon.

Attorneys in favor of the database say they would be able to get documents quickly online instead of having to physically go to a courthouse in other far-off counties.

However, clerks are concerned documents with sensitive data, like Social Security numbers, could slip through the cracks and make their way online before the information is redacted.

As a result, State Rep. Travis Clary, R-Nacogdoches, filed House Bill 1258. If passed, it would allow counties to "opt in" to the system with the authorization of the district or county clerk and approval of the county commissioners' court.

PRO: Court records can be accessed more quickly

Although Victoria does a good job keeping up with technology, some other Texas counties don’t, according to Diane Kliem, of Kliem and Associates.

It is common to wait 10 to 14 days after requesting records from other counties, she said.

“You might have a hearing coming up, and they only give you a three-days notice,” Kliem said. “It is unacceptable with how our world runs. There is so much more accessibility online; it’s naturally the next step.”

The Texas Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration contracted with Tyler Technologies in 2012 to develop a system to mandate e-filing in civil and appellate cases. The system includes a public access portal.

David Slayton, administrative director for the Office of Court Administration, said the database was developed because Texas is a big state with a lot of litigations spread throughout it.

“If someone wants to get records for counties, the only way to get them is physically – there is no way to search across counties online,” he said.

Slayton said re:SearchTX benefits lawyers and the public because they can do a broad search for cases across the state without going from county to county.

There are currently 460 clerks in the state who maintain the records for the courts.

The database will create uniformity with the counties instead of having some be more accessible than others, Kliem said.

“Sometimes we deal with a county we never dealt with before, and I have no idea what their rules might be,” she said.

Slayton said the judiciary system is slow to embrace changes in technology, but court officials are working hard to correct that.

Since e-filing became mandatory, the number of records available online has increased.

He said 8.5 million documents went through the system in 2016, a huge improvement from the 500,000 a few years ago.

The system is as or more secure than the hard-copy process maintained by county clerks, he said. Making sure sensitive data is not published online until after it is redacted or marked is a big concern to the Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration, as it is to everyone else, Slayton said.

He said personal information cannot be placed in court documents unless required by law, and the clerks will remain the custodians of records to determine what documents should and should not be online.

The Judicial Committee on Information Technology – including judges, clerks and lawyers – have developed recommendations for the Supreme Court on issues such as privacy, user access, revenue and security.

Slayton said the database will bring more convenience to judges, lawyers and the public, but the security of the documents and the clerk’s duties will remain the same.

“Just as the case is now, clerks are required to review and accept documents prior to them being processed in eFiling,” he said. “The documents will not enter the re:searchTX database until they are processed by the clerk.”

CON: Sensitive information may be at risk

BY ISMAEL PEREZ

IPEREZ@VICAD.COM

Victoria County Clerk

Heidi Easley said people who file their documents expect that their sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, not be released for everyone to see.

She said it brings about a huge liability and trust issues with the public because once the data is available, there is no way of knowing who will access the data and for what purpose.

“Someone in Timbuktu might be able to access someone’s Social Security number from a document e-filed with the Victoria County Clerk and thereby attempt to utilize this information for fraudulent purposes,” Easley said.

The world is becoming more automated and remotely accessible by technology, but Easley said there is no real secure system and “even the best and most secure systems seem to be targeted as of late.”

Proponents of re: SearchTX say it will increase the revenue and income the courthouses receive because more people around Texas will be able to access documents and pay for them. The Office of Court Administration proposes re:SearchTX documents cost only 10 cents per copy. Most clerks charge $1 per copy. Proponents say clerks will still receive as much revenue because the volume of copies will increase greatly when documents are available online.

However, Easley said she thinks the cost of running the clerk’s offices will remain the same, if not increase.

If the clerks are responsible for going back to search for any unredacted information that has gone into re:SearchTX, Easley said it would create hours on end of searching to ensure that everything is secure, which will result in “higher operating costs for the clerks’ offices.”

With the system in place now, the clerks know who the records have been provided to for public access.

Easley and District Clerk Cathy Stuart agreed that clerks at the local level are the first and last filter before before a document is published for public access.

Stuart said district clerks are bound by the statute to have complete care and control of all documents filed for the district.

“If we allow that care and control be transferred through other means, then who is to say which documents are available to the public and which are not?” she said.

“Re:SearchTX is merely copying records passing through e-file portal,” Easley said. “The clerk’s office can immediately address any confidentiality issues in the county records, whereas, the state system has no safeguards in place.”

Easley said the County and District Clerks Association support HB 1258, which would allow counties to control how their court records are made available online, if they wish to allow it to be online.

The bill also asks for the approval of the county commissioners’ court to determine if the county will “opt in” to the database system.

Gary Burns, Victoria County Precinct 3 Commissioner, said he is for everything being available online but to a certain extent.

Easley said she does not have an answer whether she will decide to opt in or not (if the bill is passed), “as there is still too much discussion to be had on this topic before we reach a decision.”


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