There were two points on which nearly everyone agreed during a Dec. 8 Texas Supreme Court hearing about the pros and cons of creating a new e-filing system in Texas modeled after the federal courts’ system, PACER.gov: Texas needs a modern, statewide e-filing system, and the Legislature must appropriate funds to create a new system. Comments by a Texas Supreme Court justice indicate he thinks it’s an unlikely appropriation, considering the economy. The high court heard testimony from judges, district clerks and representatives of e-filing services.
The hearing precedes the September 2012 expiration of the state’s contract with NIC Inc., a company that operates the current e-filing system through the online portal Texas.gov. The Office of Court Administration this summer issued a request for information from companies, seeking ideas for creating a new system.
Harris, Montgomery and Jefferson counties use a different e-filing system than the rest of the state, and much of the hearing touched on whether counties should all use the same system. Harris County uses “free fax filing” and the state's e-filing system, and the other two contract with Lexis for e-filing.
Fourth Court of Appeals Justice Rebecca Simmons said during the hearing she thinks the state needs a new system and the high court should mandate that each county use it and adopt uniform rules. The Legislature would need to pass laws and appropriate funding to make it happen, but eventually the system would pay for itself, said Simmons, chairwoman of the court’s Judicial Committee on Information Technology.
She said if large counties use separate e-filing systems, the state won’t collect enough revenue to cover the system’s operational costs.
Harris County, which is the largest in Texas, currently uses its own free fax filing system and the state’s e-filing system. Modern fax technology creates digital files from faxed documents, and then the digital records enter the county’s computerized case management system.
Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniels and 151st District Judge Mike Engelhart both told the court they’d like a system like PACER in Texas, and they think it’s important to allow people to e-file for free.
Daniels said Harris County experienced problems with the state’s e-filing system, such as issues with accessing records, corrupt documents and the payment system.
Angela Skinner, director of corporate communications and investor relations for NIC Inc., emailed the following statement from Erin Hutchins, director of portal operations, Texas.gov: “Texas.gov is committed to providing best-in-class online services and customer service support for Texas businesses and citizens. We value the input of our county government partners, and have provided several enhancements and customized solutions for the Courts eFiling service since we began managing it in 2009. Even with a new Courts eFiling solution replacement anticipated for 2012, we continue to improve the existing service in ways that benefit all of our current county partners.”
Daniels also told the court he would freely give the county’s fax filing software code to other counties, but he still prefers a PACER-like system. Harris County runs its own fax filing system.
Engelhart said Harris County’s fax filing system has increased courtroom efficiency while making it easier and cheaper for people to file court documents.
Sheri Woodfin, the district clerk of Tom Green County, said she thinks rural counties like hers are not ready for an e-filing mandate because judges want paper copies, attorneys like in-person filing, and small counties don’t have the necessary equipment or technology staff for an e-filing mandate.
Hutchins told the court at the hearing that the current system is based on 2001 technology and the state should “scrap” it and start over. Creating a new system could cost $8 to $10 million and take up to one year to complete, Hutchins said.
During the hearing, Justice Paul Green, the court’s liaison to the Judicial Committee on Information Technology, said the state would fall short on funding for a new e-filing system. He said a lack of funding also led to the current system, which requires people to pay to e-file documents.
Later in the hearing, Green said court technology has changed with the times, from the typewriter to the word processor. He said the next step is to eliminate paper.
“We must be realistic; it’s going to happen,” said Green. He said he thinks Texas needs a statewide standard for e-filing, because it’s confusing for each county to have its own system. The court must think about how to implement a statewide system and how to pay for it, Green said.
-- Angela Morris
Editor's note: The above blog has been corrected to note that Harris County uses its own free fax filing system and the state’s e-filing system.