Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder on Monday will ask judges to help his office discover the litigants’ real names when initials or aliases are used to hide identities in a lawsuit.
While Wilder’s office will not reject any filings, he has told deputies processing initial petitions that if they can’t identify parties in a lawsuit they are to ask the judge to help obtain the true party names within the court documents. The attorney who filed the case will also receive a copy of the request to the court.
Wilder sent an email to the 27 district judges Tuesday and Wilder’s deputy clerks were trained last week.
“It will all be live across the board Monday morning,” Wilder said. “The judges have the authority to do this, all I can do is send up a flare.”
Wilder’s policy change follows a Star-Telegram report in October that found that a number of divorces and family court cases involving high-profile litigants couldn’t be accessed by searching digital court records. The divorces were filed using initials, masking their identities and complicating any search.
Flaws in the ability to search court records first surfaced after Texas Rangers co-chairman Bob Simpson, an oilman who made hundreds of millions of dollars in the sale of XTO Energy to Exxon Mobil in 2010, sought an annulment from his wife of 19 years, Janice.
The pleading, filed in a civil court in September, was titled B.S. vs J.S. While their full names were not used, the addresses in the filing made it possible to identify them. The case eventually was transferred to family court and merged with an earlier divorce proceeding. But while the annulment filing could be found in an online search, it was not possible to find the original case without a number.
Other high-profile cases also couldn’t be found, including the divorce of former Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton and Van Cliburn winner Vadym Kholodenko.
Wilder and a top deputy couldn’t explain why any of the divorce cases couldn’t be found using a publicly available computer in the clerk’s office. Local judges and state court officials said in most cases a basic level of information should be available, including names of litigants, their attorneys and documents filed.
The letter to be issued by the clerks says the district clerk is required to maintain a file and court docket with the actual names of the parties. The letter also states the parties are required to fill out an information sheet identifying litigants and that Wilder’s office is required to keep an index with the full names.
Wilder also attached an order from state District Judge David Evans where he renamed a case with the full name. Wilder said that order could be used as a template by the other judges.
While he can’t quantify exactly how many lawsuits have used initials, Wilder said it is “not a huge part of our business.” He also suspects that the practice, which has been going on for decades, will not be as popular.
“I think the word will get around and whatever volume there is will drop off,” he said.
Searching for the court cases also revealed what Wilder has called a “computer glitch” that complicated the search for lawsuits because they contained sensitive or confidential information. Documents marked this way are not supposed to be available on the internet but available for viewing at the courthouse.
Wilder has said that the county’s information technology department devised a software fix that will make them available on a public terminal by Dec. 12.
“I'm glad the IT department got on it and it looks like we don’t have an insurmountable problem,” Wilder said. The fall back position for anyone searching for a file is to ask the district clerk for help.
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.