The Wall Street Journal
Texas Journal - January 5, 2000

The following text is from an article published in the 
Wall Street Journal, January 5, 2000

Courts Use Internet to Streamline Justice
By Mary Flood, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

For a look at the future of Texas courts, consider Dallas's Fifth Court of Appeals.

At 3 a.m., the previous day's opinions and administrative actions are automatically downloaded to a central computer, where lawyers, judges and others with Internet access can retrieve them. Opinions and other court actions are sent by e-mail to hundreds of lawyers and interested parties in 35 states, who receive them at no cost. The system even sends out e-mail reminders to attorneys a week before a motion or brief is due.

Just as state agencies are looking to join the world of e-government, so is the Texas judicial system. And the promised offerings aren't just for the convenience of lawyers. E-court visionaries say Texans will soon be able to plead guilty and pay traffic tickets using a computer and a credit card. (Contesting a ticket will still require a trip to the courthouse, however.)

Also like the state agencies, the court system is finding that obstacles stand in the way of its becoming fully available over the Internet. Experts in the emerging field say it probably will be more than five years before all courts come online.

"Our goal is by 2002, maybe 2003, to make the municipal courts basically open 24 hours on the Internet," says Paul D. Martin, Austin's municipal-court clerk. In the meantime, the city is putting in a system that by the end of this year will allow traffic fines to be paid over the Internet. "There's no real need for face-to-face for a lot of this," Mr. Martin says.

Texas has about 3,100 judges in 2,000 courts in 1,750 locations, and online access varies widely. Urban courts are generally more advanced, but some larger courts are being outdone by their smaller brethren. In Harris County, for instance, it still takes a trip to the courthouse to see pleadings and other court filings, and while civil and criminal dockets and case-history information can be retrieved online, they're available only to subscribers, who pay usage-based fees that average about four cents a transaction. In much smaller Denton County, by contrast, civil cases, arrest and conviction records and a listing of sex offenders by ZIP Code are all available online -- without a fee.

"We've gotten some calls from sex offenders asking why we use their mug shots and calls from people asking how they can get their criminal records off the site," says Michael Donnelly, one of the managers of the impressive Denton County site. "We tell them, go to court and get the record expunged."

There's a similar range of online availability for the appellate courts. Both the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals post their opinions on their Web sites -- generally the same day they are available in Austin -- but just four of the state's 14 intermediate courts do likewise. The two Houston appeals courts, which carry some of the biggest dockets in the state, didn't make their opinions available on the Internet until last year.

Statewide Effort
While most e-court initiatives have so far been largely local, a broader effort is under way. In last year's legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $9.8 million for the state Judicial Committee on Information Technology to develop a statewide computer system to tie together all the state's district and appellate courts. The aim is a single network capable of processing the roughly 11 million new cases and appeals filed each year. The committee hopes to connect all the urban courts over the next two years, and the rest of the state in the three or so years after that.

The immediate goal isn't public access, but better communication between courts -- allowing them to exchange information on adoptions and juvenile sentencing, for instance, where the data aren't public and so aren't easily shared. Public access is a secondary goal, one that officials say will be easier to accomplish if the courts are talking first.

The committee on information technology was created in 1997 by the Legislature -- its 15 members are appointed by the Supreme Court -- to put a computer on every judge's desktop, make state legal research more efficient, streamline collection of statewide information on the court system and improve litigant access to the courts, as well as widen citizens' access.

"The efficiencies offered by the Internet have outstripped their actual uses by our courts so far," says Peter Vogel, a Dallas lawyer and chairman of the committee.

Individual courts have even more ambitious goals. The Dallas Fifth Court and some at the Supreme Court hope to make it possible to read legal briefs and motions online as early as this year.

By most accounts, the Dallas Fifth Court is the model for where e-court planners want the state to go. Two years ago, the court's Chief Justice Linda Thomas agreed to let Charles Matz, a Houston computer consultant, run a pilot project to bring the court online. Judge Thomas says she agreed as a matter of "self preservation," hoping to make the beleaguered court more efficient. Setting up such a system costs about $5,000; operating it costs $500 to $1,000 a month, depending on volume.

The savings may offset that. Since the court went on the Internet in the summer of 1997, the court clerks say there has been a drop in the number of routine calls. When the parties in a controversial oil-royalty case learned they could keep up with the case online, 111 new subscribers signed up for e-mail updates for that one case.

Still, there are considerable obstacles before all state courts can provide similar online services. The biggest is privacy. A wealth of material comes out in court proceedings -- a divorce record may contain detailed personal financial information, for example -- and while it's theoretically public even without the Internet, accessing the information requires a visit to the court-house. Privacy advocates, and businesses that find themselves entangled in legal disputes, argue that easy online access to the same information raises new issues.

"We haven't yet gotten to the questions about what happens when it just doesn't require any effort" to look at this information, says Mr. Vogel, the committee chairman. "One of the reasons even the courts of appeals are at different levels is because different judges have different views on privacy and public information."

Who Pays?
Then there's the question of cost. Lawmakers, in funding the planned statewide court network, insisted that the system and all court online services pay for themselves. Mr. Vogel says the committee will consider whether to sell advertising space to cover the cost, but adds that he expects most courts to pay for the system through fees, either paid by the user or as an extra charge to those who file legal actions.

"Everything from the courts that's free on the Internet now, probably won't be free forever," says Mr. Vogel.

But user fees in particular are expected to encounter stiff opposition. "Citizens have paid for the information through their taxes," says Nancy Monson, executive director of the Dallas-based Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. "Governments will be saving money in a lot of ways by putting information on the Internet; the people deserve free access to this information."

The Fifth Court doesn't charge users, but relies on fees collected from those filing lawsuits. "This has created a tremendous resource for attorneys, it's increased the efficiency of the clerk's office, it's even made opinions more readily accessible to the judges themselves," says Judge Thomas. "It's made us a better court."