Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access

For the past five years, Texas’s Office of Court Administration has worked to develop a statewide online database of court filings. The database, called re:SearchTX, covers all 254 counties in the state and is intended to provide a unified, centralized system for access to court filings, similar to the PACER system used by the federal courts. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has advocated for the new system, noting in particular its ability more quickly and inexpensively to self-represented litigants.

But a smooth launch of re:SearchTX has been stymied by the local courts themselves. And now a bill has been filed in the state House that would allow individual counties to opt out of the system, radically weakening its utility.

Opponents of the new system have argued that online posting of court records would be duplicative of existing mechanisms for providing court records to the public, including online portals already used by individual large counties. They also express concerns that particularly sensitive information, like sealed or expunged records, or Social Security numbers, might accidentally end up online. They further complain that the state’s chosen vendor, which has a $72 million contract to maintain the database through 2021, is unnecessarily expensive. Proponents have assured that these worries are unsubstantiated.

The quieter, but much more substantial, reason for the opposition is financial. Individual county clerks can charge up to $1 a page for court documents obtained at the courthouse, and would lose a substantial sum in these administrative fees if the same materials could be accessed online.  More than half the 254 counties also have contracts with a different vendor that sells docket data to attorneys and gives the counties a 20% cut.

Currently, 168 counties have adopted resolutions opposing re:SearchTX.  This response is understandable but badly misplaced. A centralized and open court records program is essential to a modern judicial system, especially with an increasing number of pro bono litigants. This is not the place for a turf war.

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