Yesterday Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel invited me to preview the District Clerk’s new efiling system for pleadings in criminal cases, FREEfax. Today I saw the dog-and-pony show, and it’s a well-thought-out system that will, if all goes as planned, be very helpful to criminal-defense lawyers and, by extension, to our clients (also, I suppose, to prosecutors).
The FREEfax system has been up and running on the civil side for a while now—a couple of years?—but efiling has never been available in criminal cases.
The system that Daniel is introducing on Monday has a couple of significant limitations at this point—only cases in Mark Kent Ellis’s 351st District Court are eligible for efiling; and efiling is only available between midnight and 5 p.m. on weekdays, so it’s not helpful for after-hours filing—but it will, when other courts adopt it (Judge Ellis is an early adopter of courtroom tech) it’ll have much of the functionality of the Electronic Court Filing (ECF) system in the federal courts. In other words, pretty darn useful.
The time limitation (as well as the name of the service) results from the legal maneuvering required to allow direct (rather than through the artificial monopoly granted by the State to Texas.gov’s six for-profit electronic-filing service providers) electronic filing: in 1991 the Texas Supreme Court approved rules (pdf) for filing of electronically transmitted documents in the Harris County courts. The 1991 rules set a cutoff of 5 p.m. for electronic (fax) filing, so the district judges’ order, based on the 1991 rules, only authorized efiling until 5 p.m.
The Harris County efiling rules approved by the Texas Supreme Court in 1991 appear to have been amended in 1993 (pdf), though, and if the judges had based their order on this version of the rules efiling would be allowed until 9 p.m. But nobody seems to have proofread the judges order (signed by Belinda Hill, judge of the 230th District Court, and not referring in its body to any particular court, but styled Standing Order of the 351st District Court): The order refers to “chapter 58 of the Texas Government Code,” which chapter does not exist.
What about that name, FREEfax? In 1991, when the local rules were approved, “electronically transmitted” meant “faxed.” So the 1991 rules (and the 1993 amendments) provide that “documents electronically transmitted for filing will be received by the clerk on a plain paper facsimile….” So when you electronically file a document, it is faxed from one district clerk computer to another, both in the same server room on the second floor of the civil courthouse. When the rules no longer require a fax machine, that step can be eliminated without changing the front end.
Those of you who have been reading Defending People for a couple of years may have been shocked by the headline: because of how he ran his campaign for District Clerk, I am far from Chris Daniel’s biggest fan. But I believe in giving credit where it’s due. Daniel has had the good sense to keep some of his predecessor’s team on-task and, with the introduction of FREEfax, has proven that he’s willing and able to continue moving the clerk’s office into the current millennium, improving life for the criminal-defense bar, and for those whom we serve.