Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Harris District Clerk lets public search cases by attorney name

Mark Bennett at Defending People directs readers to new online tools making it easy to identify what cases an individual attorney has worked on in Harris County. Basically you can find the lawyer's bar card number at the State Bar of Texas website, then use this search function from the Harris County District Clerk to tell what clients they've represented. Bennett walks through the blow-by-blow of how to run the searches, including screen shots.

I just checked the web sites of District Clerks for Travis, Bexar, Dallas, Tarrant, and El Paso counties: None of them offered similar functionality, so kudos to Harris District Clerk Loren Jackson for putting the information online. Other counties should follow suit. As somebody who's used this type of information a lot in the past for a variety of purposes, IMO this should and could have been done in most jurisdictions a long time ago.

Mark suggests the information will be useful for clients who are told by attorneys, "I've handled a lot of these cases," and that's certainly true. But it also is useful for voters in judicial races in ways that may not be so obvious.

Judicial candidates often receive little attention, and frequently they're difficult races for campaigns to perform opposition research (a job I performed professionally for a dozen years in a past life), so often nominees are inadequately vetted. Partly that's because it's difficult in some counties to acquire a list of cases an attorney has handled; instead such lists often must be reconstructed, usually incompletely, from a variety of sources - especially in counties with poor computer systems. Larger counties frequently put information about defendants online or in publicly accessible databases, but searching by attorney usually is not an option, even though the district clerks have all that information.

With these tools it will be easier to document and debate Harris County judicial candidates' records as attorneys, which gives voters a lot more information about who they're electing.

That said, it still may be possible to get this information in other counties, it just takes a little more legwork. Get the attorney's bar card number online as described above and then go in person to the District Clerk's office. Sometimes a helpful employee will run the bar card number through their system's back end and generate a list informally; in other cases you'll need to file an open records request. (In smaller counties, I've on occasion been told they can't search the information that way; I'm not sure I believe it.)

Sometimes District Clerks can only provide this information for defense attorneys; for prosecutors, you can always file an open records request with the DA's office for a list of cases the attorney has worked on - they won't like it, but usually they'll give it to you.

Once you have the case list, then the District Clerk can let you see individual case files to evaluate outcomes and exactly what the attorney did and didn't do, what motions were filed, how many cases went to trial, etc..

Political campaigns might be willing to go to that extra trouble to vet a lawyer's record, but it's a good bet most potential clients will/can not. So I hope to see more District Clerks following Harris' lead. The justice system only benefits from greater transparency and the District Clerk maintains that information on behalf of the people; there's no good reason for not making it easily accessible to them.


Don Dickson said...

In Travis County criminal courts (county and district), it is at least possible to see a list of an attorney's currently-pending cases.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

D - they can also search for older cases on the system's back end. That's why I see no reason not to put that functionality online. They have the data.

Anonymous said...

This is a major problem not only in Texas but in most other states. It is great to see Harris Co. providing this service.

And you are right, they have the data. For example, Denton Co. provides court case records on their site by defendant name or case number only. But they also make bulk data available for purchase. That same data can be searched in Lexis for $56.00 per search by attorney name (including prosecutor), judge, type of offense, date, defendant, and in a complex search query construction if one chooses. A person can do one broad sweeping search for that charge and then filter and sort the data down to what ever they want at no cost for a limited period of time.

I'm not advocating using this, all I am doing is voicing a bit of frustration that this type of thing is not more widely available as a public service. It is really not rocket science.

There is a big push in the legal research community to make public records publically ACCESSABLE. County filings are one HUGE area that could stand vast improvement.

Kudos to Harris Co.

Anonymous said...

Brazoria County offers this option as well. They have offered it for a while and have quite a bit of information on their site regarding status of cases.

Paul Walcutt said...

For all the tech-saviness that supposedly comes with being in the "Silicon Hills", you would think that Travis County/Austin would come up with a better way to search open criminal cases than to post a 120 page PDF document. At least the update it every day....

Anonymous said...

Your non-lawyer readers should be aware that it's risky to judge the quality of a lawyer by the content of the motions etc. that they file - in this electronic age there is a huge amount of sharing of motions, briefs etc. I recently gave a section of a brief to a lawyer working on a death penalty cse - I was familiar with the issue, reworked the briefing to tailor it to the facts of the other lawyer's case, and gladly handed it on. I was amused but disturbed, when I saw the finished brief, to discover that there was another issue in which my work had been used - the other lawyer hadn't even asked for briefing on that issue, but must have obtained it from a third party.

This brief sharing can work to a client's benefit - if a lawyer has done a thorough work-up in one client's case, the same work may benefit another lawyer's client and free up that lawyer to do other things. But the lawyer that I was assisting, frankly, sucks, although he has quite a good reputation. I was only helping him out because I was sorry for the client and saw no way to get that lawyer off the case. It occurs to me that I would hate to think that someone might hire him because they saw the issues I so carefully researched and wrote, thinking those were his work...

Anonymous said...

Anon 3:13, you have a point. But coming from a legal researching perspective, underlying documents at a county level in any state are rarely available online, even on a paid database. And what is available is geared more toward civil than criminal cases.

I think that it is important for the basic information of a court filing be made available to the public. If I needed to know what a particular attorney's track record was on a certain offense or how a judge ruled on an offense or how that attorney did in front of the judge I was facing then I could at least make decisions based on that information. This is important for an individual facing charges or for the public to make decisions at the voting booths.

Of the counties that make their information available online it is usually offered in a way that makes it meaningless. Law firms use paid sources because in many cases it really is most cost effective.

If counties cannot make a shift to provide even the most rudimentary advanced search functions to the public then they should offer their bulk data free of charge so somebody could do it for them.

This is being done by the federal government right now and seems to be working out just fine.

Anonymous said...

Howdy, Anon 6:35! Anon 3.13 here. Please don't misunderstand me. I support entirely the easy availability of court records to the public - and am often dismayed by the exorbitant copying charges that some courts try to exact. And I agree, too, about the fact that some courts have lagged behind the times. "What is this internet of which you speak?" is an all too common response when you try to get records from some courts, especially those in rural areas. That's a nationwide problem, I find - I am constantly seeking records in the cases I handle, so I know how frustrating the process can be.

My only concern is with situations where a defendant (or their family) make a judgment call about which lawyer to hire on the basis of inadequate or misleading information. I don't think that problem can ever be eliminated, so I was simply trying to urge caution on those who might assume that we lawyers don't engage in, well ... plagiarism might be a nice way to put it.