Compared to other federal websites, uscourts.gov leaves a lot to be desired

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has released its second benchmarking review of U.S. government websites, and the main portal for the federal court system, uscourts.gov, performed very poorly in many of the benchmarking criteria.

The study considered four major performance categories: page-load speed, mobile friendliness, security, and accessibility. The uscourts.gov website scored a respectable (although hardly dazzling) 74/100 on desktop download speed and 68/100 on mobile download speed. But that was the only good news.

As to mobile friendliness, the site declined significantly from the time of the prior ITIF report, from a previous score of 99 to a score of 70 this year.  And website security for uscourts.gov was even worse. The court system was one of only a small handful of federal government bodies not to implement security measures–including the commonplace HTTPS protocol–to transmit sensitive information on its main site.

The composite score for uscourts.gov was a paltry 52.8 out of a perfect 100.  By contrast, other federal websites with legal dimensions, like fbi.gov, justice.gov, and uspto.gov, all achieved a composite score above 80.

If it seems that I criticize the federal courts for their technological blunders too frequently on this blog, it’s because I know the system can do better. Most of the fixes described above can be achieved without too much difficulty. But it seems that the federal courts as a whole have been slow to embrace even straightforward and commonplace technological advances, whether broadcasting courtroom proceedings, making documents easily available online, or securing their own website. The federal court system is the crown jewel of the greatest legal system on earth. Time to start acting like it.

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Multinational courts in the news

Two courts with multinational reach were recently in the news. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights was recently praised at a meeting of the African Union (AU) as “the premier judicial continental body.” And the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), based in Trinidad, has announced that it will develop a five-year strategic plan “with stakeholder engagement being a top priority.”

Like many courts with cross-border reach, the African Court and the CCJ depend heavily on regional member countries to provide jurisdiction and legitimacy. For example, the CCJ is seventy years old, but only three countries in the region have agreed to grant it appellate jurisdiction. The African Court has been established for more than twenty years, but only 30 member states have joined, and only 25 cases have been finalized in the past decade. Much work remains to be done.

In new lawsuit, court journalists allege that electronic case filing undermines transparency

The Courthouse News Service, a specialty news service focusing on civil cases across the United States, has sued the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Clerk’s Office. The lawsuit alleges that the Clerk’s office is withholding information on new case filings from the public for days after the cases are filed. In particular, the suit claims that the Clerk’s office is not immediately disclosing some electronically filed complaints, even though those complaints should be public record as soon as they are filed.

The Cook County Record reports:

Under the old method, the lawsuit said, journalists working in the courthouse were able to freely access paper lawsuits as they were filed with the circuit clerk’s office, even before they entered the official intake process, as the courts considered such lawsuits public information from the moment they were dropped off at the clerk’s office, essentially making private disputes the public’s business.

However, as more and more lawsuits have been e-filed, CNS said the clerk’s office has withheld more and more of them, for days or weeks at a time, as they are administratively processed.

“These delays in access … is (sic) the result of the Clerk’s policy and practice of withholding new e-filed complaints from press review until after the performance of administrative processing, including post-filing ‘acceptance’ of the complaint, at which time the Clerk deems the complaint ‘officially filed,’” CNS wrote in its lawsuit. “The Clerk takes this position even though the applicable rules and orders provide that e-filed complaints received before midnight on a court day are ‘deemed filed’ on the date of receipt, even if they are not ‘officially’ accepted as filed until a later date…”

CNS noted this particularly allows plaintiffs’ lawyers to control the initial flow of information about their lawsuits, as they can spoon feed the complaints to news outlets they may consider more friendly or sympathetic, while other competing outlets wait days or weeks for access to the vital public documents associated with the case.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and names Cook County court clerk Dorothy Brown as a defendant. The case number is 1:17-cv-07933. Ironically, the Courthouse News Service does not seem to have uploaded the complaint to its own news website.

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.

 

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.