Records ruling reprieve given
Polk County Enterprise, March 2007
LIVINGSTON – Just using common sense has helped the County Clerk’s office in the Polk County courthouse maintain business as usual this week, despite an opinion Attorney General Greg Abbott that caused near riots in other counties.
“These records have been open since 1846,” said Polk County Clerk Barbara Middleton. “Until I see a judge’s order or something from the legislature that closes them, we’re just using common sense.”
Abbott ruled Feb. 22 that since deed records contain Social Security numbers of living people, the public could no longer have direct access to them.
County clerks could face fines and/or jail time for releasing documents that include private information.
Business ground to a halt in several Texas counties where oil and gas landmen are researching mineral rights before sinking new wells while oil prices are up.
Under the system in place in Livingston, when a record request comes into the clerk’s office a staff member retrieves it from computerized files and prints the document, according to Middleton.
This system gives staff members an opportunity to redact any Social Security numbers or other personal information.
Abbott conceded Wednesday that his opinion had brought business to a virtual halt. He pulled down his ruling for 60 days to give legislators time to address the conflict between public information and privacy concerns.
For the three days the ruling was in effect, the clerk’s office staff in neighboring Trinity County needed roller skates to keep up with demands for copies of records, according to a report in the Trinity Standard.
In Nacogdoches County, courthouse staff called police to help handle angry landmen when they were told they couldn’t access the records themselves.
Angelina County completely blocked access to the records vault.
The remedy to the conflict may be already moving through the state legislature in H.B. 2061, filed by Rep. Jim Keefer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The bill simply repeals the sections of the Public Information Act, Section 552.147, that were added by the 79th Legislature and render’s Abbott’s opinion moot.
Certain records maintained in the clerk’s office such as mental health commitments, veteran’s records and some child custody issues are closed or sealed, Middleton said. Those records are not affected by the ruling or the pending legislation.