Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder is taking steps to end the decades-long practice of allowing lawsuits to be filed with initials, aliases and pseudonyms as a way to hide the identities of the people involved.
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. Wilder contends that only a judge can order that to happen.
“We are trying a new tactic to identify people who file with alias’s [sic] or something other than actual party names,” Wilder said in an email to the judges this week. Wednesday, Wilder distributed a form letter, already used in one case, that will be used to ask district court judges for assistance. He plans to use it in all of the courts.
Wilder’s action follows an Oct. 22 Star-Telegram report that a number of divorces and family court cases involving high-profile litigants, including Texas Rangers co-chairman Bob Simpson, couldn’t be accessed by searching digital court records.
The divorces were filed using initials, masking their identities and complicating any search. But Wilder also said that a “computer glitch” made it even harder to search for the lawsuits because they contained sensitive or confidential information.
Wilder said no cases are being deliberately hidden and that he knows of “no chicanery.” His office of 140 full-time and 25 part-time employees handles about 60,000 new case filings a year.
“There is no collusion between me, my staff and the judges to hide these cases,” Wilder said.
Still, the Star-Telegram investigation raised concerns about whether the public can access all public court records, and not just in the family courts. Prior to Wilder issuing his new policy, several civil court judges expressed concern about the public’s access to court records.
State District Judge Don Cosby said a local rule may have to be adopted that doesn’t allow the use of initials. Cosby also serves as the administrative judge for the state district court judges.
“If it is an attempt to fulfill his duty to make sure everyone is properly identified, then we support it,” he said. “We are a public institution.”
It’s all in the initials
Flaws in the ability to search court records first surfaced after Simpson, an oilman who made hundreds of millions of dollars in the sale of XTO Energy to Exxon Mobil in 2010 and then helped lead a group that bought the Rangers, 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 petition.
But while the annulment could be found in an online search, it was not possible to find the original divorce petition without having the case number, which the Star-Telegram obtained from an attorney familiar with the case.
When the case number was typed in, a screen popped up with the warning that the file was not available online. But without the case number, it would appear the case doesn’t exist.
A Star-Telegram records request eventually revealed that the case was styled B.R. Simpson vs J Simpson and filed in June 2016. A long court transaction sheet shows the couple haggling over assets. While the case is not sealed, a confidentiality order restricts the release of information without a judge’s approval.
A similar search also did not turn up the divorce of former Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton and his wife, Katie, although it was widely reported at the time, or Van Cliburn Competition winner Vadym Kholodenko, whose wife, Sofya Tsygankova, is accused of killing their children, Nika, 5, and Michaela, 1, in 2016. Their divorce was also reported in the media.
Hamilton’s divorce was filed J.H.H. vs K.C.H., and Kholodenko’s VTK vs SIT. Both cases were sealed by the courts. Anyone wanting access to documents within them has to seek permission from the judge.
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. But Wilder partly suggested that if an attorney says a document contains “confidential and sensitive information,” it is pulled from the internet, complicating an online search.
Cosby and state court officials said in most cases a basic level of information should be available to the public, including the names of litigants, their attorneys, the judge and the types of documents filed.
“Even it it’s sealed, you should be able to know the lawsuit exists because the law says the sealing order must be made available to the public,” said Cosby, who as a judge has broader computer access than the general public. “Why should I see a case filed and you can’t? That’s not right. You and I ought to be able to see if a case is filed.”
‘A glitch in the system’
Getting the computer system fixed to search for hard-to-find cases is literally on Wilder’s agenda.
The day after the Star-Telegram article was published, an item called “enhanced search capabilities” was the last item on the agenda for a senior manager’s meeting. It has since become a standing item to be discussed every Monday.
“This is the first time this has come to light and a request to the County IT (Information Technology) department has been made to fix it,” Wilder said in an email.
The county is also spending millions to build a new case management system, which would hopefully include new Web access and enhanced search capability. The county is building a new disaster recovery and business continuity system that will include court records.
“If there is a glitch in the system, we’re going to fix it,” Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius said.
Wilder’s form letter, along with an order prepared by state District Judge David Evans and distributed to the civil court judges, also spells out the district clerk’s intent to make sure he provides a complete record of cases filed in Tarrant County. The letter and order stem from two lawsuits regarding an alleged wrongful foreclosure and breach of contract dispute.
Both the letter and the order state that the district clerk is required to maintain a file and court docket that contains the actual names of the parties. Wilder’s letter also states that the parties are required to fill out an information sheet which requires the litigants to be identified and that his office is required to keep an index with the full names of the parties.
Some lawsuits would still be allowed to use initials, such as cases involving children and sexual assaults.
Veteran divorce attorney Steve King said the practice of using initials in divorce cases goes back at least 30 years. He said he rarely tries to disguise a client’s identity so he doesn’t have any problem with Wilder’s new policy.
“I certainly believe in the public’s access to records,” King said. “But I’m kind of Pollyannish. If it’s good for one of us, it should apply to all of us.”