There is a problem in our county courts, and it’s difficult to determine just how big it is.
In recent weeks, Star-Telegram reporter Max Baker has reported on a number of court cases that have disappeared — many involving high-profile litigants. More specifically, the cases cannot be found by searching digital court records.
The Tarrant County district clerk and his office can find the files.
But you? You’re out of luck.
The public should be able to tell what documents exist in a lawsuit, and if the suit itself exists. This is a generally accepted standard that exists in other counties in Texas.
It can feel like government makes decisions in our best interest or on our behalf, but we’ve got little input in the process. Government is big, and communicating with it can be difficult.
But any form of government must be run for and by the people — not by those who hold elected office, and that includes our district clerk.
We should be able to determine who files suits and when, across the spectrum of cases filed — from civil to criminal to family court. Yes, records can be sealed to protect the privacy of minors and for other reasons.
But the existence of a record should not disappear. It should not be viewable only by the clerk’s office and the judge’s staff.
There is the possibility that this issue goes beyond family courts — where Baker has done the bulk of his reporting — and where there is value in checking on potential employees, neighbors or partners.
You would also want to know if a business had failed to pay its taxes or violated a competitor’s patent, for example, just as you would want to know if a prospective partner had been previously married.
Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder started working on the problem after the Star-Telegram started its reporting.
If Wilder’s office can’t identify the parties — or if there are questions whether real names are being used — a judge will be asked to issue an order forcing the litigants to verify their identities by using their full names.
A judge can order a case to be re-captioned. A rule from the Texas Supreme Court indicates a clerk can seek a correction. We encourage the supreme court to take a firm hand in its oversight of this important issue.
We also encourage Wilder’s office to ensure the public can locate a record by sending bad records back, requesting a correction. The county can also establish an agreed-upon set of standards or naming mechanisms.
Another problem: a “glitch” in the computer system automatically boots confidential and sensitive cases out of the searchable, public-facing digital archive system. Wilder says a software fix — which should come in December — will fix that.
We encourage the county to invest in needed upgrades to our systems. Because they belong to all of us.
Wilder initially told the Star-Telegram that “Ninety-nine percent of the cases are going to be easily searchable.”
That’s not good enough.
Access to 100 percent of court cases filed is our right, because the information is public.
How does one know if 99 percent of thousands of cases filed each year are viewable? How does Wilder know it? It’s not knowable.
Public records exist to keep citizens informed about their government.
To “guesstimate” how many of our public records are available to us, the public, does not engender our trust.
Yes, the courts govern us. But we have put in place those elected officials who preside over them and their systems. Wilder, an elected official, is a steward for the public. He does not work for lawyers who have an interest in protecting their clients. He works for us.
The lack of access — and the inability to determine how many records cannot be found — raises serious questions about lawsuits throughout our civil and family courts.
Tarrant County court records belong to the public. Today, it doesn’t feel like it.