Harris County district clerk’s race focused on jury pay, website issues

When Harris County voters head to the polls, long after they’ve submitted their choices for Congress and county governor and judge, they’ll find an election near the last page of their ballots for an office with relevance. backstage at the courthouse.

The district clerk’s role is primarily ministerial, summoning jurors and ensuring that court records are properly kept and get to where they need to go. In this sense, work is like a referee or an air conditioner: you only notice when they are wrong.

“If you don’t think about them or have no problem with them, then they’re probably doing their job,” said Jed Silverman, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

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Democratic incumbent Marilyn Burgess is hoping for a second term, while Republican Chris Daniel is seeking to regain the position he lost to Burgess in 2018. Like the race for county clerk, this contest is a repeat.

Burgess said she hopes to build on the progress she’s made in modernizing the office. She touts the launch of an online registration system for jurors that sends more accessible reminders and allows the office to notify jurors when they are not needed; collect $5 million in unpaid court costs; and digitizing the system that notifies lawyers when a judge has ruled in their case.

She hopes to increase jury diversity and response rate, pay jurors more, and continue to prioritize digitization over 20th-century paper processes if voters grant her a second term.

“We’re trying to get as close to a paperless environment as possible,” Burgess said.

Harris County attorneys, however, say Burgess made mistakes that drew attention. There are common complaints about the online registration system, which some members of the bar say is prone to glitches and slowdowns. And there was a high-profile gaffe in which Burgess’ week-long jury appreciation led to a mistrial in a murder case after a guest speaker highlighted the need for justice for the families of the victims in front of a room full of potential jurors.

Burgess said the mistrial was the result of a last-minute cancellation; the substitute speaker did not have time to properly prepare and spoke off the cuff. The clerk said her office will move away from guest speakers in the future to limit this risk.

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Daniel, who served as district clerk from 2010 to 2018, hopes to capitalize on those blunders and says his background as a lawyer and engineer makes him the best candidate. It plans to create an online portal for lawyers to file exhibits, simplify the court clerk’s website and increase server capacity to make it easier to use, and strengthen the jury notification system. he wins. Like Burgess, he also wants to raise juror pay.

“When you don’t have server capacity, it causes (the website) to crash,” Daniel said. “That’s what lawyers experience the most, they try to get access to files because they’re not organized in a user-friendly way. This undermines transparency.

Lawyers have registered complaints about the site, which is used to access criminal and civil court records. Recently, some records have been incorrectly labeled as classified or sealed, shielding them from public view, said Nicole DeBorde Hochglaube, a Houston defense attorney and vice president of the Texas Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. She said dozens of lawyers have complained about it.

“It’s a new problem but, unfortunately, pretty constant,” DeBorde Hochglaube said. Burgess, however, said she checked with staff members and her office was unaware of any such issue.

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Murray Newman, a lawyer and former prosecutor, said the site has crashed several times lately, crippling court cases.

“If the district clerk’s website goes down, the whole court is at a standstill,” Newman said. “It’s happened several times. You can’t even log in.

Burgess denied this. She acknowledged that the site can slow down at times, but maintained that it didn’t completely crash. And she said the system has more records and information available than any other county.

“Our system is slow at times, and we’ve discovered some things that we think have improved that,” Burgess said.

The Clerk said her office has made the website a budget priority and will continue to do so. She worked with Universal Services, the county’s information technology department, to find ways to streamline the digital experience.

Daniel, meanwhile, said he would remove unnecessary features from the website to speed up its loading time and redesign its features to make them more intuitive.

“A lot of it comes down to, do you understand what’s needed and what’s wanted from a lawyer’s perspective,” Daniel said.

Election day is November 8 and early voting begins October 24. The deadline for registration was October 11.

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