The Judicial Commission on Information Technology and the Texas Office of Court Administration have issued a “Request for Information” about a new e-filing system for Texas courts. Some details are available on Carl Reynolds’ very helpful blog CourTex. I’m no expert on state procurement, but it appears this is the first step toward formulating a contract proposal with outside vendors.

The request describes a state-owned e-filing portal that would work for all Texas courts. Among other things, the Commission is said to be interested in:

A centralized document store to facilitate a subscription-based search of electronic court documents. In addition to a monthly subscription fee, the document store should also allow for a paid download of a document.

(It’s on page 4 of the PDF.)

To someone who spends quite a bit of time with open court documents — and just gave a CLE talk featuring a neat hack for searching appellate briefs — the idea of the courts putting these documents behind a pay-for-access system is pretty disheartening.

On the brighter side, the proposal reflects legitimate dissatisfaction with the current state of e-filing and that the Commission is looking for better alternatives.

I haven’t yet had a chance to fully digest the document. But my gut response is that it would be a shame to build this as “enterprise software” in the style of internal business applications — the kind that often require training sessions and telephone support — rather than learning from a decade of amazing consumer-focused internet software. If you want to know why e-filing portals feel like they’re stuck in the late 1990s, it’s because in a very real sense they are. The prototype system (federal CM/ECF) was built on technology of that era. At that time, it was an amazing feat to have an account system, a payment system, and basic file uploads. Today, that’s within easy reach of the smallest bootstrapped startup.

The question is how to innovate beyond that 1990s conceptual model to create something truly more valuable to courts, to litigants, and to the public.

Suggestions are now open. Really… they are. The OCA is taking formal questions until May 6, 2011 (which will be answered at this page) and formal submissions from potential vendors until May 23, 2011.