Courts say electronic records are on the docket
Coming soon to a courthouse near you: Electronic document filing, judges swiping through case files on touch pads and digital public access to court records.
San Luis Obispo County Superior Court recently went live with electronic filing for civil cases, and Santa Barbara County Superior Court has inked a deal with a software vendor to provide the same services by the middle of next year. Ventura County Superior Court is evaluating various providers and will make a choice in the next few years.
For more than a decade, California’s courts have been an anomaly. The state is the home of Silicon Valley and produces world-class technology. Its state courts are the busiest in the nation. And yet they operate largely on manila folders and file carts.
Back in 2001, the California Judicial Council sought to develop what was called the California Court Case Management System, or CCMS, a single software program that would replace the hodgepodge of systems in use by different counties. About $333 million and 11 years later, the Judicial Council killed the project.
San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties were perhaps the worst hit by the decision to end the boondoggle. The two counties had been selected as early adopters and were working to refine and finalize version four, the last version before the project died. San Luis Obispo County in particular was in dire need of a new system and had been patiently working on CCMS as the solution for almost a decade.
“We’d been on hold for some time with CCMS, and when they pulled the rug out from under us, we went to the Judicial Council and asked for the money to get a replacement system,” said Susan Matherly, the executive officer for San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.
San Luis Obispo got a budget of up to $3.1 million and selected Texas-based Tyler Technologies. The courts implemented electronic filing for civil cases on June 23 and have also launched an edition for judges, allowing them to read electronic case documents on touch screens.
“We haven’t gone backwards to convert data, so we’re scanning as we go forward. We’re still working through some of these issues to understand when we should scan some of our older cases,” Matherly said.
Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara County Superior Court’s story is somewhat different. There, the courts had been on an independent system rather than state software and were working to move toward an electronic filing with their existing vendor.
But when Gov. Jerry Brown enacted a rule that forced county courts to liquidate the rainy-day funds they’d built up when the state slashed funding, Santa Barbara County Superior Court officials decided to put the system’s reserves to use in a $1.9 million contract with Tyler Technologies.
Switching to Tyler is expected to save about $50,000 a year in maintenance costs, and the court officials expect to have e-filing in place by the middle of next year and all case types converted within about 20 months.
“The timeline is pretty aggressive when compared to our history. Our last system we had for 16 years,” said Darrell Parker, executive officer for Santa Barbara County Superior Court. “There are varying degrees of people accepting change, but our goal is to be paper-on-demand. No longer will you see people pushing files around the court house. The stack of files will be available to judges on a touch screen.”
In Ventura County, new case management software is “at least a couple years away,” said Assistant Executive Officer Robert Sherman. The county remains on version three of the state’s system, after it tested version four and put in “five or six years of work and didn’t end up with a new system,” Sherman said. The Ventura County courts are evaluating Tyler Technologies but will have to seek funding from the Judicial Council before making a purchase.
Tyler Technologies runs court systems in 11 other states. The company said it has won 25 of the 28 California counties that have bought new software since the state’s own system was discontinued. “California was kind of dead to us. They were underway with their own project, and for a decade we were not able to do any work there,” said Bruce Graham, president of the company’s courts and justice division. “Including California now, we cover a third of the population, 100 million Americans.”
The switch hasn’t been totally frictionless. Michael Morris, a partner at Andre, Morris & Buttery who has used the new system in San Luis Obipso County, said there have been some minor glitches with the e-filing system. But he said the firm appreciates the ability to file documents from its Santa Maria office without having to use a fax machine. “It’s what you expect with any new system when it gets put in. There’s going to be a period of time adjusting to the new system. But our people are optimistic that it’s going to be advantageous,” Morris said.
Court officials in San Luis Obispo are working out those kinks, along with how to interface with the alphabet soup of other state agencies — including the DMV and the DOJ — that they must report information to. And once that is all worked out, there’s the issue of public digital access to court records.
Matherly of San Luis Obispo County said putting routine civil matters online is a “no brainer” but that other documents, such as family law proceedings, drug treatment orders and restraining orders, are thorny issues.
“We’re grappling with privacy concerns and figuring out what case types we should put up there as available to the public,” Matherly said.
Santa Barbara County’s Parker is optimistic that those issues can eventually be addressed. Electronic access is both easier for the public and reduces the pressure on court staff, he said.
“My goal is for you to be able to get everything you need online instead of standing in line,” Parker said. “Given that we’re down 35 percent in funding since 2009 and at a 26 percent vacancy factor, we need the efficiencies this system will gain.”