Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Travis criminal docket data now online

In a past life, I performed opposition research on nearly two dozen judicial campaigns. But back in the '90s when I was performing that work professionally, vetting an incumbent judge's record was a pretty hard slog. You basically had to physically go to the courthouse and comb through massive old ledgers just to compile detailed, judge by judge docket information, much less to find out which cases an individual attorney had worked on. Then came the grueling task of analyzing their work, which usually involved sitting in some musty file room in the courthouse basement for days on end.

Now, much of that information is available or capable of being made available electronically, as evidenced by Travis County courts' creation of a new docket search application, a tool which allows anyone to search all current and future criminal court dockets. (Previously they'd issued this information online in massive, cumbersome pdf files.)

Travis civil dockets are online too, but not with the cool search interface.

In addition to the obvious benefits for attorneys, defendants, journalists and various courthouse regulars, I can think of quite a few public policy applications for this information.

And in that vein, I have one quibble: I wish the County didn't remove past information from the search engine. You can only search from the current day forward, not for past time periods. For lawyers looking for when they need to be in court, that's a perfectly useful function. But the limitation ignores other uses for the information the public might discover if they had ready access to it.

Dallas County recently decided to take the next step, shifting all of their criminal court documents to paperless formats, although they don't have public web access to that information or for that matter a snazzy search function for court dockets like the Travis site. It's amazing to me how much the research methodologies have changed in a very short period of time with regards to tracking court information. The same stuff is available as before, for the most part, but it's sure a lot easier to access now than then.

For a related and perhaps contradictory view, see also: Weighing benefits and detriments of US public information policies about crime.

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