Lawsuit raises concerns about limited access to Travis County, Texas court records amid pandemic
A lawsuit filed against Travis County's manager of court records argues that her office is violating the First Amendment by not offering the media timely access to court records, which have become more difficult to obtain under pandemic-related restrictions.
Courthouse News Service — a California-based news service that reviews and reports on newly filed civil litigation across America — is suing Velva Price in her official capacity as Travis County district clerk. Media outlets across the country, including the American-Statesman, use Courthouse News Service as a research tool.
Price declined to comment on the lawsuit because the litigation is pending.
The public can only obtain Travis County court records — such as arrest affidavits and lawsuits — via records requests or by visiting the downtown courthouse and viewing the records for free in person. During the pandemic, the public has only been able to enter the district clerk's office by appointment, with very limited slots available. Press access to Travis County arrest affidavits has also been significantly reduced during the pandemic.
Attorneys and certified peace officers have online access to Travis County records, but the general public does not.
"In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are challenging times for the courts," the lawsuit says. "However, the unique circumstances have also magnified the difference between those courts that are willing to use readily available technology to demonstrate their commitment to timely access, and the (Travis County) district clerk, who has not."
Harris County, for example, offers the public free online access to criminal and civil records — in part because of a lawsuit that Courthouse News Service filed against Harris County's district clerk in 2009.
"Technology should illuminate the halls of government, not darken them," Courthouse News Service contended in its lawsuit.
Obtaining records quickly can be expensive. Travis County clerks charged the American-Statesman $1 per page Monday to print a 100-page document — clerks were unsure whether the records could be delivered digitally by press time — in which a judge recommended that an Austin man on death row get a new trial.
Members of the public who also have an immediate need for documents or who do not have email access can also face steep fees, Austin attorney George Lobb said.
"At the beginning stage of a case, you don't immediately have an attorney," Lobb said. "And if you need documents in a child custody case or an eviction case, those can be expensive" if the reports are lengthy.
The Travis County district clerk's office uses e-filing software provided by Tyler Technologies. Many other state courts use the same Tyler Technologies e-filing software to provide timely access to new civil petitions.
"The district clerk could likewise provide timely, pre-processing access to new civil petitions ... as demonstrated by its sister courts," the lawsuit says. "However, the district clerk has refused to do so."
The lawsuit is asking for a declaratory judgment that it is unconstitutional to deny access to new civil court petitions until after administrative processing because it violates the First Amendment's right to free speech and the 14th Amendment's right to due process.