Indiana’s problem-solving courts and the development of the courtroom workgroup

Those interested in the operations of problem-solving courts might want to skim through various rule changes proposed by the Indiana Problem Solving Courts Committee.  Among the most notable changes, any judge appointed to a problem-solving court bench would be required to participate in an approved orientation program within a year of appointment.  The new rules also clarify the importance of the entire “problem-solving court team” — a group that may include the judge, case managers, attorneys, probation or parole officers, and representatives of addiction treatment, child services, or Veteran’s Administration groups.

Such teams are an expansion of what Herbert Jacob identified as “courtroom workgroups” in the 1980’s.  Jacob and his colleagues observed that in the crucible of the courtroom (especially the criminal courtroom), the D.A., defense counsel, and judge had much more in common with each other than might be anticipated.  They worked together to process hundreds of criminal cases, and developed their own courtroom culture that was not known or understood to those who did not frequent the courtroom.  In particular, criminal defense lawyers found themselves in two worlds — as advocates for their clients, as as friends and colleagues of the judge and prosecutor.  The interests of the specific defendants became almost secondary to the “work” that needed to be done in processing cases.  (Coincidentally, the courtroom workgroup was often clearly, if absurdly, illustrated by the contemporaneous sitcom Night Court.)

Indiana’s problem solving courts appear to embrace the courtroom workgroup in a  healthy way, allowing a team of advocates and decisionmakers to help defendants reach productive resolutions.  Any Indiana resident or attorney is invited to comment on the proposed changes.

 

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The logistical challenges of local court administration

One of the challenges for litigators who practice across state boundaries is making sense of state court systems: not just the culture and norms of the area, but often the structure and administration of the courts themselves. Many states are downright byzantine, with a large number of specialized courts (sometimes with overlapping jurisdictions), and no unified (or only recently unified) court systems. Local courts, covering counties and municipalities, are often under the governance of their host city or county rather than a centralized judicial administrator.

This is a product of history as much as anything, but it leads to obvious inefficiencies. One example making the headlines this week comes from Clark County, Ohio, where the county council has voted against consolidating two clerk of court offices, in part because they use entirely different electronic records systems. The move was originally proposed as a way to save up to $400,000 a year for the cash-strapped city of Springfield, but the city was unable to fund a study to confirm that number. In the end, lawyers, judges, and others will have to continue navigating different court systems with different technological resources.

Lack of security protections in PACER system made it vulnerable to hacking

An organization called the Free Law Project has identified a serious vulnerability in PACER, the federal courts’ online filing system. The bug permits cross-site forgery, essentially a method of capturing another user’s account information, and utilizing that information to access documents. The original account owner would be charged, but might not know it until the account statement arrives weeks later. PACER fees, which are currently 10 cents per page with a maximum of $3.00 per document, can quickly add up.

Early stories also stated that another vulnerability would allow hackers to file documents through other people’s account, compromising the integrity of the entire justice system.  PACER administrators, however, have denied that fraudulent filing was possible.  The cross-site forgery issue has apparently also been addressed.

For those interested in the specific technical details of the bug, the Free Law Project has posted what it shared with the courts here.

 

Wyoming raises court fees to pay for technology upgrades

The technology in Wyoming’s state courts is reportedly in terrible shape, ranging from extremely outdated to nonexistent. Half the courtrooms lack adequate power, and 80 percent lack digital capacity for video and videoconferencing.  In response, the state legislature has approved an increase in court fees to fund technological improvements.  The affected fees are primarily “automation fees” associated with filing a case, and moderately increased monetary penalties for a felony conviction.

 

U.S. Supreme Court (finally!) adopts electronic filing

Almost 30 years after the PACER system was implemented for the federal district courts, and more than 15 years after district court dockets were placed on the web, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will adopt its own electronic filing system.  The system goes into effect this November.

The Court’s announcement states that “Once the system is in place, virtually all new filings will be accessible without cost to the public and legal community.” I read that to mean that reviewing and downloading docket materials will be free, which would be an improvement on the costly PACER system.  Let’s hope that is what is intended.

A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system

The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article yesterday on daily life at India’s largest courthouse, the Allahabad High Court. It tells a tale of extreme delay, extraordinary inefficiency, and basic injustice stemming from a lethal combination of judicial vacancies, outdated filing systems, and lax protocols for advancing cases to resolution. Among the facts presented in the article:

  • Nearly 45% of judicial positions on the court are unfilled, due in large part to an ongoing battle between the judiciary and the other branches of government about the most appropriate methods for judicial selection.
  • On average, it takes nearly four years to adjudicate a simple commercial dispute in India — twice as long as in Brazil and more than three times as long as in the United States.
  • More than 86% of high court cases in India take 10-15 years to adjudicate.  Fewer than 5% are resolved in less than five years.
  • The Allahabad High Court receives nearly 1,000 new cases every day.  Almost half are filed by the government.  Judges on the court even have a name for newly filed cases that have not even been looked at yet — “backlog fresh.”
  • It is so unpredictable which cases will be called on any given day that one lawyer profiled has associates spread out across all the courtrooms to track if — and when — any of his 34 open lawsuits on the court’s calendar might be taken up by a judge.
  • Even though rural litigants often have to travel a whole day to appear in court, it is commonplace that their cases will not be called and another day will be wasted.
  • The system encourages delay by allowing lawyers to file an “illness slip” to postpone a hearing, whether or not they are actually sick.
  • Case records are badly misfiled–piled on floors and chairs, and intermingled by year.  In the story, a worker searched eight hours for files for the next day’s cases, and was still missing 17 of 65 by day’s end.

This is a jaw-dropping account, the paragon of “justice delayed is justice denied.” What can we make of it?

Continue reading “A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system”

The precise cost of a new judgeship

The Unified Courts of Guam have made their budget request for 2018, which includes line items for adding a new Superior Court judge.  The court system estimates that the cost of adding a new judge (which includes salary, staff, courtroom facilities, and supplies) will be $397,537.

The proposed judicial budget would make up a little over 5 percent of Guam’s overall governmental budget for 2018.