Harris County District Clerk Loren Jackson continues to beat the drum for a free eFiling system specifically for Harris County, with a news release on June 17 and some uncritical coverage in the Houston Chronicle and Texas Lawyer. He is absolutely right, up to a point, and quite wrong after that point.
My office supports the Judicial Committee on Information Technology, which reports to the Supreme Court of Texas on these issues. The major objectives of JCIT and OCA are to secure sufficient funding to transition from “pay-as-you-file” to free eFiling and support local document management systems to enable paper on demand. Courts and counties clearly have to move toward more efficient systems of moving, storing, and giving access to the information that is at the core of their business - dispute resolution.
eFiling should be free. The pay-to-file model is really geared toward private attorneys and civil cases with existing filing fees, but in the courts there are also government filers, indigent filers, self-represented filers, and criminal defense eFilers. Texas courts have had electronic filing since 2003, and in the seven years since, adoption around the state has been relatively slow, but a lot of courts and counties are on board. Handling, storing, and retrieving paper court documents remains a large and rising expense to the courts. While strong usage of eFiling would save state and local government money, an obstacle to eFiling is cost to the filers, which may range from $6 to $16 per filing.
The current model, Texas Online, also depends upon the courts using a vendor (currently NIC USA) under a contract with a separate, executive branch agency (the Department of Information Resources). This is not to say that vendor-based eFiling is the wrong idea. The processing of fees (for court costs, not convenience fees) by credit card is complex, and continuing the obligation of 24x7 help desk operations is a difficult obligation for the government staffing model (presumably Loren Jackson has thought through these complexities). But depending upon a vendor with no direct contractual link is highly problematic as a practical matter, and presents a separation of powers concern as a principled matter.
So Jackson, the JCIT and OCA all support movement away from the current business model for eFiling. But what I envision is a free, state-supported system that provides a single portal for filing any kind of case in any Texas court from anywhere in the world. Jackson is impatient, insisting that Harris County judges and litigants demand and deserve their own free portal ahead of everyone else, and in fact to the detriment of everyone else. The following communities, which currently use Texas Online system, are among those who stand to suffer if Harris County pulls out of the current system: El Paso, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, San Angelo, Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton, and Tyler. Starts to look like everyone in the state versus the good citizens of Houston. Let's work together on getting where everyone agrees we need to go.