Lawyers handling civil suits in Harris County district courts will soon have fewer excuses for missing a court hearing.
On Jan. 17, the Harris County District Clerk's Office began testing an automated docketing feature that sends an e-mail to lawyers each weekend with a listing of all of their court hearings for the next week. By clicking on links in the e-mail, the lawyers have online access to docket information and all of the documents filed in the suit, which can help them prepare at home for their hearings.
The new automated docketing feature is one of several online-access additions the clerk's office plans to launch in May or June. Significantly, District Clerk Loren Jackson says, the office also plans to offer searchable online access to criminal cases, including links to some documents such as indictments and judgments.
Jackson, a Democrat who defeated Republican Theresa Chang in the November 2008 election, says he's doing his best to fulfill a campaign pledge to use technology to save people a trip to the courthouse.
"I want to make those records accessible. I feel very strongly about that," says Jackson, who was a trial lawyer at McLeod, Alexander, Powel & Apffel in Houston before he was elected as district clerk. "That's the reason I ran."
Jackson, who was sworn in on Nov. 18, 2008, says his information technology department started testing the automated docketing feature a few weeks ago with a group of about 15 to 18 lawyers who mostly do civil work. The response from most of the lawyers in the test group has been favorable, he says.
"It's fantastic, it's innovative and it's going to be an asset to every lawyer who has business in Harris County," says Randall Sorrels, a partner in Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels & Friend who is one of the lawyers in the test group.
Sorrels says that after he received his e-mail on a recent Saturday, he saw what he had coming up on Monday, and read the court documents from home.
"I was able to go into the office and put my hand on the documents in the file quicker because I knew exactly what I was looking for," Sorrels says.
He says it should help prevent lawyers from missing hearings simply because the court date didn't make it onto their calendars. That will improve efficiency at the courthouse, he says.
Jason Gibson of the Gibson Law Firm in Houston also is sold on the idea of an automated docketing feature.
"What I like about the system is that it's just another layer. It's a net, in case something falls through the crack at your office," Gibson says.
Mike Doyle of Doyle Raizner in Houston says he's glad to have the extra reminder of his weekly docket.
"That data was just waiting there to be mined and be made useful," he says.
Less Paper, Fewer People
Once the improvements are offered, Jackson says, lawyers who want the dockets can simply register two e-mail addresses that will receive their automated docketing report each week. He also plans to add a feature that will allow anyone to register to be informed of developments in particular suits.
Meanwhile, Jackson says his office is continuing work on a project started under Charles Bacarisse — who was the district clerk before Chang — that puts all court files online. Twenty-one of the county's 25 civil district courts have gone totally electronic, and document scanning for the other four will be done by the May/June launch date of the online access improvements, Jackson says. "It's much more efficient."
Lawyers aren't required to file documents electronically, but they are "strongly encouraged" to do it, Jackson says, noting that lawyers set a record on Jan. 20 by filing 422 electronic documents in Harris County. That's more filings in one day in any jurisdiction using TexasOnline, the software the state provides for e-filings, he says.
Because there's less paper to manage, Jackson also is reducing the number of clerks in each civil court. Some courts have gone to one clerk from two. In some cases, three clerks cover two courts, he says.
No one is being laid off because of those cuts, he says, but some clerks have been moved from the civil courts to family courts, where there's much more paper to process.
"When you reduce the paper load in these courts, we are able to reduce a need for manpower," he says.
After he took office, Jackson says, he eliminated a few top-level management positions in the clerk's office, which employs 540 people. That freed up some funds, and by finding a little more money in the budget, Jackson says, he was able to raise the starting salary for clerks. Effective Jan. 7, the starting salary for a clerk is $25,000, up from $22,000. That gave a $3,000 raise to 34 clerks, Jackson says.