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2016-12-15

Commissioners’ Court opposes Supreme Court decision

By Steven James BCC Editor

The Bandera County Commissioners’ Court adopted a resolution challenging an initiative passed by the Texas Supreme Court which could lessen the oversight county and district clerks and judges have over the handling of judicial records.
The Supreme Court’s initiative, named re:SearchTX, was created as a way to give Texas attorneys and judges a statewide internet access system to look up information about cases from all 254 Texas counties, similar to PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which is used for federal court documents. Re:SearchTX is hosted by software company Tyler Technologies and is controlled by the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA).
Currently, only judges can use re:SearchTX, but by January attorneys will have access to the portal and by the summer, when the site is complete, the general public will have access to it.
Bandera County Clerk Candy Wheeler and Bandera District Clerk Tammy Kneuper both expressed concern at the commissioners’ court meeting last Thursday about the lack of authority they and the judges would have in deciding what gets put online. They were also concerned about who would be liable for the possible invasion of privacy people could suffer from leaked information.
“Just think about what that’s going to mean when you apply for a federal job and go through a security check, and you have something out there that has been expunged—you’re not going to pass that security check,” Wheeler said. “The citizens don’t have any idea what’s happening.”
With the old e-Filing system, attorneys would give their files to the clerks, who would then redact the information considered damaging or personal. Kneuper said with re:SearchTX, the attorneys will be in charge of redacting information, not the clerks, which means information that should have been redacted, including dates of adoptions, births and divorce filings, won’t.
In addition to authority and privacy issues, Kneuper also had a third worry: what would happen if money generated from copies of the documents goes to Tyler Technologies instead of Bandera County?
She claimed re:SearchTX is unconstitutional and violates the Texas Local Government Code.
Article 191.008 of the Local Government Code states a commissioners’ court has the option to make an e-filing system for its cases, though it is not required, and Article 192.006 states the county clerk is the custodian of records for civil and criminal cases.
She said with re:SearchTX, putting dockets online would be mandatory. She also said there is no policy or statute that permits the Supreme Court to as a vendor for local court documents, for which county and district clerks are the custodians.
“We try very hard and diligently to maintain these records for the benefit of our counties and to try to keep the liability to the clerks,” Kneuper said. “They started capturing our documents back in February, which we were not told they were going to be doing. We were told to begin with that it was just going to be an entrance, and then it would be purged after 30 days.”
The week before the commissioners’ court meeting, she attended a Texas County and District Clerks Association meeting, where County Commissioners’ Court lobbyist Jim Allison was present. Kneuper said there was a unanimous opinion at the meeting that OCA was disregarding the rights of clerks and judges, and that county judges needed to know what was going on. Kneuper said counties from around the state were planning to fight this.
Bandera County currently uses iDocket to file electronic versions of its cases, but not every court document becomes available on the digital portal.
“In their great wisdom, who is going to protect this system from being hacked, and who’s going to have to pay for that?” Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris asked.
She said last year she collected nearly $24,000 from making document copies. The money produced from document copies and subscriptions goes to paying for electronic systems for filing and managing dockets. Money given to gain access to re:SearchTX could possibly result in revenue loss for the county.
“It’s an old ‘We’re going to have a share of that,’ but what’s a share?” she asked. “Why can’t we get it all? It’s already our records."