Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Response to Texas Criminal E-Filing Mandate Concerns

I received a link to an article in Texas Lawyer from our friend, new PhD Bill Raftery at Gavel to Gavel regarding a public hearing held on April 5, 2016 at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals regarding mandatory criminal case E-filing.  The article notes that the court has already made filing mandatory for their cases.  But they heard additional concerns that I will comment on:


First, if you can (registration is required) please read the full article (it isn’t long) because I am going to quote the arguments presented below and respond to them with our experience in these issues.

1. Ms. Sherif Woodfin, District Clerk of Tom Green County said that “it would be a challenge to change the way that courts have operated for hundreds of years”.  She added that “not all court clerks have case management systems robust enough to handle e-filing”.  And last that the resources they have “are currently allocated to printing documents and making paper file”.

My response is to point these courts to the E-Filing Return on Investment article that we published back in 2011 in the CTB.  Of course they are spending money on paper files because it is almost six times more expensive to do it that way.  So it should be worth the cost of conversion to an electronic world.

Further, it is now possible to with an internet connection to use a “cloud based” case management system to reduce costs.  A group of California counties are doing this for example in order to share and reduce costs.

2. Williamson County District Clerk, Ms. Lisa David noted “that she had a meeting with district judges in her county and they resisted the idea of using the computer to look up their cases.  She said she refuses to provide paper files for civil cases, in which e-filing is already mandated.”

My response is that it is possible to have a case management system that links documents to the case numbers can automatically find and present the documents the judges need on that date, time, or proceeding when they are needed.  I must also note that I doubt in most cases that judges are hitting the file stacks.  So just like in manual systems, electronic systems can be used by clerk's and judicial assistants to organize the case materials.

One example is PDF Binders” that in turn can be delivered to the judge’s tablet device of their choosing including the larger format Apple iPad Pro and the recently noted Sony Paper devices.

We can also reference an excellent recent blog post “Don’t let eFiling turn into eFailure” published by Mr. Jon Rosen on March 25, 2016 on the OneLegal Blog.  He notes several tips to make reading and working with electronic documents much easier.

3. Mr. Randy Chapman of the Texas Legal Services Center said he is concerned about privacy and public protection. He said that criminal cases all have sensitive information, and that people could be harmed unless the court creates safeguards.Chapman explained that if criminal case records are freely available online and data brokers or commercial users access them, it could destroy the life of someone who is trying to re-­enter society.

Mr. David Slayton, Administrative Director of the Texas Office of Court  Administration also commented that “there are no laws or rules that would stop a court clerk from putting criminal records online.  Right now, different counties do what they want without any regulation”.

My response is that the definition of public data and access needs to be studied in Texas.  Several other states including Iowa, Utah, and Wisconsin have criminal case e-filing and they can serve as models for the Texas approach to this issue.

Further, as we have been following here on the CTB, the issue of commercial data provider’s responsibilities for accurate data is starting to be addressed by legislative action.  This too can be considered as part of the solution.

That said, during the initial roll-out the Texas Courts may wish to restrict access to the electronic criminal e-filing data for the public to the courthouse.  This approach has been used by many courts across the country and it has the added benefit of not impinge upon the press’s or public’s right to the public record.  It just reduces convenience.

In summary, it is possible to address these and other issues raised.  One just needs to look at what other states and jurisdictions have successfully implemented to solve them and adapt them for your court.

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