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State courts continue move toward electronic filing, docketing

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AP Photo/The Yakima Herald-Republic by Gordon King In this 2009 picture, Debbie Mendoza, Zillah, Wash.’s municipal court nonattorney judge, looks…

AP Photo/The Yakima Herald-Republic by Gordon King

In this 2009 picture, Debbie Mendoza, Zillah, Wash.’s municipal court nonattorney judge, looks over the docket for the day’s court.

Implementation of online systems is “going more smoothly over time” as courts and vendors get used to the rollouts, said Thomas Clarke, a vice president at the National Center for State Courts.

“We’ve moved into the middle game with electronic filing,” Clarke said. “It’s moved into the mainstream,” he added, to the point where technology conferences focus less on the mechanics of electronic docketing and filing and more on the finer points of implementation.

Many states offer some form of electronic docketing for public use, either electronic filing by litigants or the posting of court documents online for public viewing.

Ongoing programs in Kansas, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Texas highlight this nationwide move toward electronic filing, allowing courts to fully utilize the potential of expanding digital technologies.

Kansas

Kansas recently received a six-figure grant from the federal government to implement electronic document filing for litigants in its state courts.

The approximately $200,000 award will fund electronic filing pilot programs in trial courts in six of the most populated counties in Kansas, which has 105 counties.

“Electronic processing will increase productivity and reduce the task time and expense for the benefit of all court users,” Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said in a press release. “This is a good deal for Kansans.”

The six counties, combined with five others in which electronic trial court filing is already available or coming online, will make up nearly two-thirds of the trial court caseload in the state, according to state supreme court statistics.

The eleven counties are home to more than 1.7 million of Kansas’ 2.8 million residents.

Johnson County, Kansas’ most populous with more than a half-million people, already has electronic filing available for some types of cases and is not among the six affected by the grant.

The grant also allows for combined filing, in which documents in similar cases spanning multiple litigants may be filed together.

The state’s supreme court initially sought a $1.1 million appropriation from the Kansas state legislature but ultimately did not succeed, leading the court to turn to the federal government for help.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, periodically gives money to state and local governments under its Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.

These justice assistance grants often go to local law enforcement and state judicial programs.

The grant comes on the heels of appellate court filings being accepted online throughout the state, which was also the byproduct of federal grant money.

According to Nuss’ office, a full statewide rollout of electronic filing will cost approximately $1 million more.

Minnesota

To mark the beginning of eCourtMN, Minnesota’s statewide conversion to electronic court records, 11 counties have moved to a paperless system but have experienced a hiccup in public access as old files are scanned and converted to an electronic format.

The Brainerd Dispatch reported in early July that, as part of the transition in those counties, public terminals for viewing records had become inaccessible.

The physical documents, on paper, would not be publicly accessible while they were being converted to an electronic format, according to the Dispatch.

A state court spokesman said that public terminals were already available in some of the 11 counties and would be back online in the rest by mid-September.

By Sept. 16, electronic filing will be mandatory in the 11 counties in civil cases and family court matters, according to the eCourtMN steering committee.

Before the pilot program, documents from a particular courthouse were only accessible at public terminals at that very courthouse. Once the pilot program marches along, documents in any court of the 11 will be viewable from any other, to be joined by other Minnesota counties as they are swept up by eCourtMN.

Court officials have said that court documents will “eventually” be available “from any computer that has an internet connection.”

Minnesota began eCourtMN in January 2012, as its overall attempt to move from a paper-based filing system to an electronic one. Minnesota officials have estimated that, from start to finish, eCourtMN could take up to 5 years to become fully implemented throughout the state.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s state court system began a $7 million electronic filing program in 2011. Small claims lawsuits in parts of the state will be among the first affected by the program, as electronic filing requirements take effect later this year.

All court actions in New Hampshire now are entirely on paper, and courts require physical copies of all filings. Although most court filings in New Hampshire are public, facilitating that access often requires locating a singular copy of a particular document, as additional electronic or paper copies do not yet exist.

The court system therefore has to completely overhaul its handling of documents to bring things online. Five outside software companies entered bids to implement the overhaul, two finalists were recently announced, and the winner is expected to be named in August.

Small claims lawsuits in Plymouth and Concord will be filed online as early as November, according to a report in The (Nashua) Telegraph, the first steps toward full implementation of the paperless system.

Civil filing fees in New Hampshire increased July 1 to help fund the project. Fees for original actions, such as claims and appeals, increased from $180 to $225. Fees for small claims and landlord-tenant disputes, among others, increased as well.

With the switch to an electronic system, courthouses will also install filing terminals to accommodate litigants without internet access.

New Hampshire officials have estimated the project will take 5 years to implement.

Texas

The second-largest state in the country will have required e-filing in civil trial-court cases by 2016, and a pilot program in a mid-sized county is an early adopter of the program.

The Texas Supreme Court in December 2012 ordered “mandatory electronic filing” for cases on different timetables according to the court level and the population of the county.

All appeals courts must accept electronic filing by January 1, 2014, along with trial courts in all counties with more than half a million people. Later deadlines are spread out every six months for more sparsely populated counties, the last coming in July 2016 for all counties with less than 20,000 people.

The state supreme court’s order was designed to standardize the state’s filings. While many counties accept e-filing in some form, the order requires the state’s courts use TexFile, an “e-filing portal” provided by the state’s Office of Court Administration.

Gregg County accepted its first e-filings in civil cases in June, after the Office of Court Administration included the county in its plans to implement the supreme court’s order.

Gregg County, in eastern Texas, contains the city of Longview and has approximately 110,000 residents, ranking 30th by population among Texas’ 254 counties.