Jefferson County District Court records should be online to foster transparency, says local attorney

By David Yates | Feb 12, 2018

BEAUMONT – In an era where smartphones can order a pizza on voice command from the comfort of a sofa, individuals seeking public filings at the Jefferson County District Clerk’s Office are still required to physically venture to the courthouse and interact with terminals using software that was first created in the 1980s. 

The lack of readily available web viewing for public records goes against the idea of open information, says Langston Adams, a Port Arthur attorney who frequents the Jefferson County courthouse in Beaumont on a regular basis. 

“Public records should be available to anyone – especially when technology permits,” Adams told the Record. “Those records are stored digitally. There’s no technological reason why they shouldn’t be available to the public online.”  

While many Texas counties, such as Harris, Galveston and Dallas for example, feature websites that allow the public to freely look up civil litigation filed in district courts with relative ease, Jefferson County does not and most likely will not for the foreseeable future.

JC records terminal  

The reason why – “budget constraints,” says Jamie Smith, Jefferson County’s district clerk.

When he was first elected in 2014, Smith immediately began modernizing the district clerk’s office and began pushing to force his new workplace into the Internet age.

However, plans to put the office online were never fully actualized.

Smith did manage to make records available online for attorneys but not for the public, as doing so would require large amounts of redacting, which takes time and money.

Smith told the Record civil filings contain personal information, from social security numbers to street addresses – information that identity thieves can snatch with the click of a mouse.

In order to make the records available to the public, a clerk would have to screen each individual filing, redacting any personal info that could be stolen, a costly and time-consuming process for a quaint office that receives thousands of filings each year.

When the Record first arrived on the scene in 2007, the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office made records available online, a convenience that has since been shut down because of lack of resources, Smith said.

Monday through Friday, individuals, some who don’t even live within Jefferson County, travel to the district clerk’s office to search records.

When they arrive, they are seated in front of a computer and forced to navigate software that makes old-school DOS almost look modern.

The terminal uses the RUMBA AS/400 Display – a black screen littered with green words and numbers that require copious amounts of squinting from even the keenest of eyes.  

Newcomers to the system are almost always in need of clerk guidance.

“I think that software was in use when Lincoln was president,” Smith said with a laugh, adding that he'll keep searching for an economical solution to update the system. 

Adams believes that it would be worthwhile for the Jefferson County Commissioners Court (the county’s governing body) to spend the money needed to upgrade the system.

“It’s worth investing in transparency,” Adams said.

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