Members from the media, courts, and government talked about privacy and transparency during a panel discussion about a statewide case management system at the Freedom of Information of Texas annual conference on September 14 in downtown Austin.
Currently about 200 judges use re:SearchTX, a secure web portal that includes all electronic filings as of January 1, 2016. The portal, which is managed by the Texas Office of Court Administration and hosted by Tyler Technologies, provides judges with a tool that allows them to access cases from all Texas counties that e-file. Access to the portal has been an ongoing project—with counties being phased in—and the OCA plans to eventually make re:SearchTX available to the public. Similar to PACER, a federal portal accessed by subscribers who pay fees, the public portal would be funded by fees attorneys pay to use the system.
For the media, having open records easily accessible is crucial to pursuing stories. Panelist Madison Venza, bureau chief of Courthouse News Service—and a former Vanity Fair reporter—described the strains in public access to court documents. In her experience, because Texas’ 254 counties have different methods of making records accessible, getting information on cases can hit lulls.
“Complaints lose their value the longer they sit around,” she said, adding that a centralized case management system would help reporters do the research to ask difficult questions of elected representatives.
For some in government, there is concern over tabloid-style journalism. Panelist Rep. Travis Clardy said a rush to transparency could degrade the value of the court system and pointed to a need to stymie “judicial voyeurism,” where tabloid reporters with malicious intent dig up information on politicians.
“I’ve got no desire to assist up-and-coming ‘TMZs’ of the media world,” he said.
During the 85th Legislature, Clardy introduced HB 1258, a bill to require a written agreement between the public and a court clerk, along with approval from the county’s commissioners court, for public access to an electronic court record to be granted. The bill died in the Senate.
For county court clerks, already tasked with balancing transparency and protecting sensitive data, there is concern over liability, as well as the costs associated with working in a statewide records system. Panelist Sharena Gilliland, Parker County’s district clerk, said that clerks can be held liable if sensitive data gets into the public sphere. Some files, she said, have data that is mostly deemed sensitive by the Texas Supreme Court. This can include victim and defendant identifiers and private medical information.
For the court system, transparency is important. Panelist Blake Hawthorne, clerk of the Texas Supreme Court, noted early in the discussion that sensitive data would not be accessible. The Rules of Civil Procedure require attorneys to redact such information when filing cases, he said.
While no one in the panel downplayed the importance of public access to the state’s court records, the discussion was a microcosm of diverse views.