Making Big Changes at the District Clerk’s Office…
By Allan Jamail
In the 2018 sweep by Democrats in Harris County, the office of County District Clerk brought in a new face. It can be said one of the county’s most important offices is that of District Clerk.
The District Clerk’s office records the actions and the judgments of the court; transmits the orders of the court to the authorities responsible for their execution; and assumes all other duties assigned by the presiding judge of a court. The District Clerk’s office “makes justice happen.” The District Clerk is elected by Harris County voters for a 4-year term.
A Texas district clerk is a “constitutional officer of county government” found in Article 5, Section 9 of the state’s constitution. The district clerk is the custodian of the “official record of the district courts” and must mark the exact date and time of receipt and issue all papers including subpoenas, citations, warrants, and summons.
Marilyn Burgess (D) defeated incumbent Chris Daniel (R) in the general election for Harris County District Clerk on November 6, 2018. She wasted no time after officially taking office by signing her first order as Harris County District Clerk at midnight, January 1, 2019 and has been working hard to serve the people ever since. Though she has been in office less than a year, her innovations are already making a difference.
During her transition into office, her team discovered that court costs, fines, and fees had not been billed for a number of years. Her office began sending out notices for these fees within the first month of her term and to date has collected $1,966,798.15.
“We will easily exceed the $2 million mark prior to the end of the year,” $957,000 of this is from current activity. The rest is from 2018 or earlier when no effort was made to collect. We are committed to billing AND collecting on a current basis, as well as continuing to work to collect as much of the old balances as possible,” said Ms. Burgess.
Other changes include an expansion and modernization of electronic services offered through the DCO. From the start, the District Clerk empowered her IT team to get creative. Attorneys, for example, now enjoy e-Issuance of service papers which is available by email with papers attached and additionally with 24/7 retrieval from our website.
The office is currently piloting e-Notices to replace mailed postcards with case updates in a handful of courts and will be fully transitioned to electronic notice for all courts by year-end. This saves taxpayer dollars by eliminating postage and printing cost and gets the notices to the attorneys faster.
Another innovation is a new e-hearings system which allows attorneys to schedule hearings on motions online, 24/7 without the need to speak to one of the deputy district clerks directly. This is currently being piloted in six courts with more coming online as judges give the DCO the go ahead for their court.
The office culture is also changing at the DCO. “We have taken an office that had low morale and drastically improved it by giving much-needed raises, soliciting input, and listening to the needs of the staff. We make each staff member feel like a valuable part of the team,” said Ms. Burgess.
A complete website overhaul is in the works too. The new site will offer intuitive navigation, more frequent updates on news and office events, and include a mobile friendly version.
The Harris County District Clerk’s Office is also boosting its outreach effort to diversify juries and study barriers to service, cooperating with Houston METRO to improve their free rides for jurors’ program, and supporting the Jury Assembly Building reconstruction.
Stay tuned for more developments with a major initiative to introduce electronic jury summonsing to Harris County. Residents can already go online to claim an exemption, reschedule their date of service, or print a new summons, but the new summonsing process will take this a step farther. While residents will still receive the summons itself via mail, they could get in line digitally the day of their service and receive their assignment for service online.
“Many other counties across the state and nation use similar electronic systems and have had great success in boosting appearance rates. It is time for Harris County to catch up!” said Ms. Burgess.