In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts, alleging that the county was posting electronically filed complaints days after receiving them, even though the complaints should have been immediately available to the press as public records.
On Monday, the federal court agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction which gives Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thirty days to develop a system under which the press can gain immediate access to newly filed cases.
I do not envy Dorothy Brown. Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected her request for a one-year extension of the deadline to align Cook County’s e-filing system with that of the rest of the state. This new decision only turns up the heat on Cook County to develop a functional e-filing system in very short order.
Brooklyn’s family court will now benefit from a new high-tech courtroom, which will permit remote sharing of evidence, videoconferencing, and remote court interpreting.
This is a wonderful thing. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle story explains:
“This automation is overcoming barriers,” Dr. William Bell, whose organization Casey Family Programs helped pay for the ICT part in Brooklyn, said. “Barriers of language and barriers of location. Even though [someone] may be incarcerated, they can participate in a hearing about their child’s future. That is barrier that has far too long been nearly insurmountable. The fact is that we no longer have to bring people into this courtroom in chains in front of their children in order for them to have a say in their child’s life.”
Kudos to the court system for initiating these updates. (If only they could do something about the clunky, formal name for the courtroom: The Kings County Integrated Courtroom Technology Part. How about something a little snappier?)
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.
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.
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.
At Above the Law, Nicole Black has an interesting piece on “judicial missteps” associated with social media use. Judges have faced recent disciplinary actions for posting on Facebook about active cases, attorneys appearing before them, or other judicial candidates. Black reminds us:
But the convenience of the immediacy and reach of social media is often tempered by its permanency. After all, a single tweet or Facebook post can have unintended and long-lasting effects. Unfortunately, that’s something people often forget in the heat of the moment, resulting in regrettable and irreversible mistakes.
That’s good advice for everyone. A little discretion on the internet goes a long way.
Two very different programs with the same goal of keeping people out of court were announced in North Carolina this week.
Durham County has one of the state’s highest levels of eviction filings, with approximately 900 cases filed each month. Eviction cases are stressful for tenants and costly for landlords. A new program co-sponsored by Legal Aid of North Carolina, Duke University’s Civil Justice Clinic, and the Durham County Department of Social Services is aiming to reduce eviction filings by guiding affected tenants to legal and financial assistance programs. The hope is that tenants will be able to remain in their homes, landlords will be paid the rent owed, and the courts will not be clogged with cases that might well be amenable to extrajudicial resolution.
In Buncombe County, local prosecutors have developed their own program to reduce the need for drivers to come to court to challenge or pay speeding tickets. Drivers caught going 15 miles or less over the speed limit would have the option of paying their fine or even negotiating for reduced points online. The district attorney behind the program estimated that 2000 people per day crowd the courthouse to appear before a magistrate for speeding fines.