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January/February 2008

Bringing 21st Century Technology to the Past

By Judge Joseph “Tad” Halbach

The Historic Documents Room of the District Clerk’s Office is a mountain in which there are hundreds of precious diamonds buried, but we don’t know where. We have found and restored many judicial records of interest to historians, the bar and the general public. But, they are difficult to explore because the administration of court records in the 1800s did not have computer programs that allowed for meaningful indexing.

The solution has been to bring 21st century technology to the 19th century records of the District Clerk’s Office. Last May, a group of Boy Scouts, assisted by many members of the Houston Bar Association and other volunteers, began the challenging task of inputting case information from these valuable judicial records into a database. Once this project is finished, our historical records will be preserved and more accessible to future generations.

The project began as an Eagle Project for John Halbach of Boy Scout Troop 505, chartered to St. Vincent de Paul Church. As part of the public service requirement, every Eagle Scout must have completed a substantial project of lasting use to the community that involves planning, recruiting volunteers, leadership and performance of the project.

John began thinking about this project after Judge Mark Davidson of the 11th District Court, a former Troop 505 member and family friend whose enthusiasm for historic judicial records is both well known and infectious, mentioned the need for such a project.

Since the American Civil War is of interest to John, he approached Charles Bacarisse, then the District Clerk of Harris County, and offered to convert onto a database the court records from 1861-1865. The project took months of planning, with Clay Cossey, the District Clerk’s Director of Technical Services, and Frank Heredia, the Historic Documents Team Leader, assisting John with the day-to-day logistics.

Of the many challenges, a database program had to be designed, an intricate schedule of volunteers created, and food preparations made for the volunteers. People assisting this project had to be available over a period of three days at pre-set times.  As a matter of necessity, there had to be a similar ratio between adults, who were to do the reading, and scouts and students, who were to do the data entry.

A “dry run” was made to see if the electronic database program worked and if persons unschooled in 19th century legal terms could accurately read and interpret the old court entries. While some difficulties are inherent in reading longhand written with a quill pen, the test volunteers not only did the work correctly, but also reported that they enjoyed themselves.

John’s Eagle Project began on Tuesday, May 29th, and lasted for three days. Incredibly, everyone arrived on time in the 11th District Courtroom. After a short PowerPoint program to explain the project, the volunteers were sent to conference rooms. Under the watchful eyes of the portraits of former judges, some of whose records were being worked on, the volunteers began reading the names of Plaintiffs and Defendants, case numbers, crimes, and other key case information. Typically, one adult read, a pair of students and scouts entered data on a laptop computer, and another adult looked over their shoulders to verify accuracy.

Many of the adult “readers” were attorneys and judges who came to help an Eagle Scout candidate and who left knowing much more about our legal heritage. Tommy Proctor, president of the Houston Bar Association, volunteered three hours. Judge Caroline Baker of the 151st District Court read the judicial actions from 1863 taken by her great-great-great grandfather, Judge James Addison Baker. George Fleming came to drop off his son, Tyler, but stayed longer when he saw how much everyone was learning and enjoying themselves. All told, HBA members logged almost 100 hours on this project over the three days.

The student and scout volunteers played an unexpectedly useful role. Topper Sheehy, then a sophomore at Strake Jesuit and an Eagle Scout, suggested and implemented a program modification that reduced the number of keystrokes required to input each file. Topper’s brother, Patrick, then a freshman at Strake, also added improvements. With a little practice, everyone quickly learned how to read the handwriting that seemed undecipherable at the beginning of the project. Near the end, many of the student volunteers were even able to proceed without any adult supervision, although adults were watching, nonetheless.

In the end, volunteers had successfully made over 2,500 court entries into the program and had saved the District Clerk’s Office and the Harris County taxpayers many hours of time and expense. The project has made the records of the court from this era not only enjoyable to look at, but actually usable by historians, genealogists, and others interested in our past. More important, these records may be the only written records still extant of many African American residents of Houston of this era.

Tanya Garrison, president-elect of the Houston Young Lawyers Association, announced plans to continue John’s project through the HYLA’s newly formed Historic Documents Committee, to be chaired by Jon Saikin. This service to history and our legal system will be remembered by the volunteers as educational and fun, and will be appreciated by those who use these records as a benefit to all.

Judge Joseph “Tad” Halbach has presided over the 333rd District Court since his appointment in 1995. He served as Civil Administrative Judge from 2004-2005. An Eagle Scout, he is also Vice Chair of Programs for the Golden Arrow District, Sam Houston Area Council, Boy Scouts of America.