Tech Audit

How High-Tech Are Courts?

States Ready to Emulate Federal Standard If They Could Just Get Financing

Posted Jun 1, 2004 5:43 PM CDT
By David Beckman and David Hirsch

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It is hard to get the straight story on the state of technology in the American judiciary. “Straight” depends on the angle from which you view, and those in charge may have a slanted view. Everyone has prejudices and biases when it comes to computerization.

Still, some things regarding the courts of the 50 states plus the federal judiciary are as expected: Money is short everywhere. Fed­eral courts, in general, lead state courts in computerization. And virtually all jurisdictions recognize the need for an electronic docket and electronic filing.

Federal courts are easier to computerize because there are fewer judges, fewer clerks, a more limited and well-defined subject matter jurisdiction and better financing. And appellate courts are easier than trial courts. But other than schedules and appellate opinions being generally available on the Web, we did not sense state appellate courts being significantly ahead of their trial courts.

We recently did our own informal survey of America’s courts. We were unable to contact all courts, and some wouldn’t talk, but we were interested in finding whether any state courts have some degree of technology standard­ization.

We developed a pretty good feel for at least a third of the country. We found that no state was close to the federal standard, but many seemed ready to emulate it if they could just get financing.

DIGITAL FILING

Among the main benchmarks we looked for was electronic filing. Some states have well-developed projects, many have fledgling ones, and some seem to have none at all. Money is the ubiquitous limiting factor.

Knowing that because of tight budgets, most state courts would not have well-developed electronic filing, we looked for the next best thing: an electronic docket that at least listed filings, even if the actual documents were not accessible through the system. We also gave points to states that made their electronic dockets available over the Web. And we looked for what we term “poor people’s electron­ic filing”: electronic service of orders and rulings and electronic service of documents among counsel. Electron­ic service is based on the assumption that most court personnel and nearly all lawyers have e-mail.

One of the most interesting state technology systems we discovered was in Maine. It does not have electronic filing; it has geographic challenges, it needs more bandwidth, and it must deal with the usual misconceptions regarding what technology is and is not suitable for. But a conversation with Warren Armstrong, the information tech­nology director for Maine’s state court technology systems, reveals a solid concept with measured risks: The state’s desktop/laptop system is based on the Mac OS X platform. Microsoft Word is used for word processing. On the server side, Oracle databases are used for case management.

“The judges in Maine have used the Macs for many years,” Armstrong says. “In the spring of 2001, the tech committee had several long meetings to decide if we would stay with the Macs or go to Windows.

“Previously, I was an IT director for a project [involving the U.S. Department of Justice]. We supported 400 U.S. attorneys and paralegals in a single office building. ... I had between 15 and 30 people. ... In Maine, I have 14 people to support the same number of people, but now it is spread over 42 courthouses in a 35,000-square-mile state.”

Armstrong says trade reports in 2001 about coming problems with viruses, worms and other vulnerabilities in Win­dows led him “to conclude that switching to that platform simply would not be possible without adding at least two more desktop technicians to my staff. At the time, OS X was still new, but based on my earlier experiences with UNIX, I felt that if Apple could deliver a stable platform, this would be the way to go.

“There were and are members of the committee who would prefer us to move to Windows,” Armstrong says. “This is due to the numerous legal software packages written for this system. But the ease in functionality of Win­dows has, from my viewpoint, been trumped by its lack of security.”

In the meantime, Armstrong is trying to build an information system based on open-source software. As for the economical choice of open-source software, we searched in vain for a jurisdiction that uses OpenOffice suite, the Microsoft Office-compatible set of programs (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tools) that is free.

BIGGER STATES, BIGGER PROBLEMS

More populous states have problems smaller states do not have. Because of larger populations, more courts and more extreme variations in population density, a unified system can be more difficult. Additionally, resources may be spread thinner.

Look at Ohio, which ranks seventh with a population of 11.5 million. According to Meg Buzzi, project manager of technology and planning for the Ohio courts, because Ohio is a home-rule state, the central judiciary cannot mandate technology. “Each jurisdiction has a separate sys­tem at all levels,” she says. According to a recent technology survey, here is the Ohio lineup: 222 court systems use Word, 207 use WordPerfect, 41 use Microsoft Works, 33 use Lotus WordPro, 1 has ClarisWorks (Macintosh), 20 use other word-­processing software and 12 use none.

Service of orders by electronic mail is not permitted, though there is discussion with the U.S. Postal Service re­garding certified digital mailing. There are 383 courts in the state; all but four have computerized case-management systems. According to Buzzi, their biggest problem is working on software and hardware standards so that courts can talk with one another and with local agencies.

New York, another huge state, has electronic case management with scheduling. Decisions are scanned, and there is some electronic filing in commercial cases. There are fees for filing by computer, but no fees for viewing. Orders and documents are not served by e-mail.

New York went from no computerization seven years ago to a concerted process of bringing computers into the judicial branch. The biggest problem is the number of requests for services, because of a lack of resources.

Connecticut has a short calendar and assignment list on the Web for civil matters. It is trying to update its case- management system. It is currently working on a system to allow attorneys to start cases electronically.

Its technology staff feels its greatest success is new Web-based programs that make changes on the server accessible to all computers. Probation officers are able to directly input case notes that are accessible to all officers; also available is a registry for protective orders and restraining orders. According to IT staff, the biggest problem is balancing the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy.

According to Debbie Cook, chief information officer for the Alaska courts, that state’s trial courts use Word and its appellate courts use WordPerfect. (We wonder if there is a message there.) Her description of Alaska’s system puts it in the “typical” column. An electronic docket is in place in at least part of the state. No electronic filing. No e-mailing orders. Limited service of documents by e-mail among lawyers. Some data available on the Web.

Statewide e-filing is claimed to be one of Colorado’s greatest technology successes. The state is considered to have one of the most advanced implementations of electronic filing in the country. Only 21 states have more population than Colorado, and its geography can be chal­leng­­ing.

There are many other states with various levels of an electronic docket. Some are only for internal access. Some charge fees, while others provide a certain amount of information for free and charge a nominal amount for access to additional information.

Looking at our survey’s results, certain principles emerge. First off, a unified approach is ultimately better. However, a more fractured approach to technology can have some benefits. Local jurisdictions, particularly when budgets are tight, can figure out what works best for them. And trying different approaches also might lead to something unexpectedly good.

Many state jurisdictions may emulate the federal formula for electronic filing. It works. At 7 cents a “page” for ac­cess, it generates funds. But the problem with charging even a small amount for access is the possibility of deterring the public from using the docket in browser mode, rather than seek mode. Imagine if libraries restricted people to using the card catalog, eliminating permission to browse. Libraries would still be useful, but you would have to know what you wanted when you walk in.

If you look at the user interfaces for most electronic dockets, they tend to be set up like card catalogs: people need to know what they are looking for. That may be good from a privacy standpoint, but for other than the most sensitive data, this country long ago made the choice that “sunshine” in the judicial branch is a prized value at the core of ordered liberty.

That sunshine is very important today with a judicial branch that is underfunded and poorly understood.

Sidebar

COURTS ONLINE

Here are some Web sites showing how various jurisdictions handle technology issues in their court operations.

Connecticut

Mississippi

New York and New York

Pennsylvania

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at ddb@iowalaw.com or Hirsch at david@iowalaw.com.

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