Among the flurry of bills working their way through the Texas Legislature this session is Senate Bill 891, set for a hearing by the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday.
Filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, SB 891 is something of a catchall. This omnibus bill includes a slew of changes to laws regarding prosecutor’s offices, courts and court administration.
Unfortunately, it also includes a provision that would end the system of using newspapers as a last resort for notices to individuals about civil legal actions involving them, including:
• Probate matters requiring personal service of papers
• Tax lien notice of sale
• Guardianship proceedings
• Community property proceedings when one spouse has disappeared
• Child custody suits by a parent or guardian.
Worse still, some attorneys have expressed concerns that the bill’s vague language could be interpreted to include all public notices.
They would cease appearing in your local paper and instead be moved to digital repositories on government websites.
That would be a mistake.
Traditionally, most public notice statutes dictate that their notices should be easily accessible, archivable, published independently and in a verifiable manner.
An online-only notice has little chance of being seen by the average person unless they go looking for it, whereas newspapers can deliver this valuable information right to your home.
And unlike news organizations, government websites are under zero free-market pressure to be easily navigable and user-friendly.
Moreover, many rural Texans lack high-speed internet access, making browsing through an online repository an onerous task.
Public notices, along with open meetings and freedom of information laws, remain a vital tool for the average person to keep tabs on the actions of government agencies and their elected officials.
Their publication has historically fallen to newspapers and print news media remains the primary vehicle and best option for ensuring public notices remain in the public eye.