NAGARA-CoSA 2012: Preserving Texas Court Records

This article is the fourth in a series of our takeaways from the 2012 NAGARA-CoSA Annual Conference.

By Erica Wilson, Government Information Analyst

Published August 28, 2012, 8:32 a.m., updated at 12:00 p.m. to delineate the roles of Texas’ two task forces for court records preservation.

If you’re familiar with TSLAC’s Local Schedules CC, DC, or LC, you know that court case papers dated 1950 and earlier must be preserved permanently.  But as many clerks know, this is often easier said than done. What are the specific challenges in preserving historical court records?

Rolled court papers

Laura Saegert, TSLAC’s Assistant Director of Archives, gave a presentation on the challenges of preserving court records in Texas. Most case papers from the 1840s through the 1920s are either tri-folded or rolled, which means that they cannot be opened without damaging the paper.  In cases like these, the papers need to be humidified and flattened prior to being used for research or scanning.

Another issue is theft.  It is estimated that almost 3,000 Supreme Court files are missing from the Archives – some because of floods and fires, but many through theft.  Sometimes these missing files show up at auction houses or on eBay.  Last year, 90 of these cases were recovered, but there are still hundreds out there for sale.  Since 2002, it has been mandatory for Supreme Court filings for civil cases to be e-filed, but the fees associated with this process have made it difficult to implement the same requirements for criminal cases.

Recovered court files

In 2009, the Supreme Court of Texas created the Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force, which was assigned the tasks of collecting information from individual counties and other government agencies on the present state of Texas court records and the related preservation efforts; analyzing the data, including identifying counties and other archives with the most important historical records; ascertaining prominent needs and areas of concern regarding preservation and protection of Texas court records, including enforcement and security problems; and finally, developing a plan to address the need to preserve and protect our court records across the state.

In January 2012, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission established the Local Government Records Storage Task Force to assist the Commission in drafting rules for storage of permanent and court records. This Task Force may explore potential funding sources to assist entities that may have difficulties subsidizing preservation and storage efforts.

Most recently, the Task Force met in the spring and summer to revise the previously proposed storage standards for court records.  They will be presenting their consensus to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in October.  If the standards are approved, they will be published in the Texas Register for public comment for 30 days.

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