Crack open the courthouse

The SE Texas Record Aug. 11, 2007, 5:58am

The Jefferson County District Court has finally gotten tough on plaintiff's attorneys who dodge paying filing fees.

Here's hoping the additional revenue leads next to a technology upgrade-- one that not only makes the court clerk more efficient, but also leads to more effective communication of the workings of our court system to voters and the media.

The court's web site resembles something built by a moonlighting teen Web designer in the mid-1990s. And we're being kind.

Indeed, in this Internet Age it behooves our government to make public information available and accessible as quickly as possible. Our courts, especially, shouldn't operate in the shadows.

For years here in Jefferson County, they largely have, to the benefit of those working the system for their own personal interest. As Judge Milton Shuffield explained to our David Yates, trial lawyers routinely overwhelmed the courthouse staff by filing giant toxic tort cases on behalf of hundreds or thousands of plaintiffs.

All fee-avoidance aside, these massive cases are built up to do more than scare the defendant into settling out of court. They're also carefully crafted to obfuscate their true meaning and intentions to the pubic.

When you're vying for millions in fees, the last thing a plaintiff's lawyer wants is to attract a scrutinizing eye.

Alas, they overwhelm all of us with paper. Court clerks joke, giving the most prolific lawsuits descriptive names like "Collosus," but that rarely drives the media or interested citizens to hazard a closer look. More often, it turns them off. The more details and complexity, the easier a mass tort lawsuit is to ignore.

So a tree falls in the forest, but nobody is around to hear it.

It's about time Jefferson County started putting all civil court complaints and material filings online-- in real-time or close to it. The technology is available and affordable-- the federal courts have been doing this for years via PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) program-- all it takes now is some courthouse initiative and political will.

Who would want to keep our civil courts out of the public eye? We'll see soon enough.

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