In his State of the Judiciary Speech, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, advised lawmakers on a new system to improve transparency in the Texas courts system. However, Hecht’s comments appear to have fallen on deaf ears, as a number of Texas House members are lining up behind legislation that would permanently bar the public from viewing Texas court records.
State Rep. Travis Clardy (R–Nacogdoches) has filed House Bill 1258 in order to tie the hands of the Supreme Court from implementing an electronic court records database.
Chief Justice Hecht described the benefits of a database open to the public, noting that a similar system has operated in the federal courts for 16 years. In his State of the Judiciary speech, Hecht told legislators the following:
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 handling, 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.
Clardy’s bill would only allow the public access to court records if they enter into a written agreement with each court clerk and acquire approval from the county commissioners in each county in which each court is located.
From a practical standpoint, that would cut off every Texan’s ability to access court records. It also, insidiously, might set up some private entity to obtain exclusive access to court records that could be sold to the public for a profit.
The bill is apparently being pushed by county clerks who are upset that the Supreme Court’s new rules may impose more work in order to implement the new system.
So far, over 30 House members have signed-on to Clardy’s anti-transparency bill as joint or co-authors. The following members are authoring the legislation:
Clardy, Price, Thompson, Senfronia, Nevárez, Holland, Anderson, Charles “Doc,” Ashby, Burrows, Cain, Cook, Darby, Faircloth, Geren, Gooden, Hefner, Keough, King, Ken, King, Phil, Kuempel, Lambert, Lang, Martinez, “Mando,” Minjarez, Parker, Phillips, Raney, Shine, Springer, Stucky, Swanson, White.