By Gary Blankenship
Charles Francis, chief judge of the Second Judicial Circuit, holds an inch-thick file for a foreclosure case.
In there somewhere is a one-page affidavit from the plaintiff on costs and attorneys’ fees, and he needs to find it to deal with a motion on those fees and costs. The file, with its hundreds of pages and multiple submissions, is not indexed. For the moment, that’s probably typical of most case files across the state.
“I bet you most of these judges in a lot of counties spend 15 to 20 percent of their time looking [through the files] for what they’re going to rule on,” Francis said. “Their judicial assistants do or they do.”
That can make a judge hunger for something on which Francis is working very diligently: the installation of large computer screens backed up by the software to display totally electronic court files.
What Francis and other judges are laboring for might be considered the back end of the state couirt’s new e-filing system — getting the documents and information to judges and in such a manner that they can efficiently handle it, and make and disburse their rulings.
Leon County already has a basic electronic viewing system, but most cases are still paper-based. Francis noted a page-long online docket list for one case file; only one document had been electronically scanned and hence could be called up on the screen.
And while an all-electronic file offers tantalizing savings in time and energy, it’s a daunting – and somewhat pricey – task to get it implemented.
Francis recalled a recent hearing he held in a Leon County courtroom, as a partial example of the complexities involved.
There were 11 lawyers representing seven parties.
“You have a complaint; you have the answer and affirmative defenses to that complaint; and you have motions to strike those affirmative defenses,” Francis said. “To rule on that, I have to see all three documents.”
That meant getting the paper case file ahead of the hearing and locating all of the relevant documents, and then having them in front of him for quick reference as the lawyers made their arguments.
For an electronic system, that would mean a computer screen — “judicial viewer” is the preferred term — capable of separately displaying the documents so the judge can refer back and forth to them as the lawyers make their arguments.
“That’s a 30-inch screen we’re looking at,” Francis said.
But not just any big screen. It will have to lie mostly flat so the judge and lawyers can make eye contact and be adjustable for the best angle of viewing. Lighting in the courtroom and in judicial offices must not obscure the screens with glare. The computer system must be available so the documents can be electronically retrieved without delay.
And these are only a handful of factors to be considered in designing the system.
The challenges are familiar to Ninth Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon, chair of the Florida Courts Technology Commission, which is overseeing the transition from paper to electronic courts.
“It’s progressing,” she said. “These judicial viewers are going to be very robust. They will permit the judge to search for multiple documents in a file, and they can search by keywords within a document.”
Judges also will be able to cut and paste between documents as they assemble orders and rulings, will have commonly needed forms available, and will be able to annotate documents with notes only they can see.
The complexities of getting judicial viewers installed around the state aren’t made easier because it’s also occurring with the implementation of electronic filing for the courts. One break for the courts, Munyon said, came with the Legislature funneling money to the courts to attack the backlog in foreclosure cases. Some of that funding can be used to purchase judicial viewers which then will be available for other cases.
A key component, she said, will be the docketing practices of clerks. Like Francis, Munyon said she frequently handles multi-party cases, sometimes with as many as 30 to 40 parties. The resulting flurry of paperwork requires accurate docketing descriptions. If one party files a motion to dismiss, Munyon must be able to distinguish it from the multitude of other dismissal motions also likely to be in the file.
“If it’s not done correctly, it can cost you a lot of time,” she said.
Francis can tick off a litany of other concerns.
For example, the Second Circuit has six counties. Clerks of court in four counties — Liberty, Jefferson, Franklin, and Wakulla — use one type of program for receiving and managing electronic filings. Gadsden County uses a different program and Leon County, the largest in the circuit, uses yet a third.
The circuit-wide system, being developed by aiSmartBench, must be able to work with all three systems and deliver the electronic document to a viewer in any of the six counties. And it must be a unified system, so judges don’t have to learn six different methods of accessing cases in the six counties.
“They’re all good people,” Francis said of the six clerks he’s working with. “They’re all working hard to get this done, but they all have different levels of budgets and different resources available to them.”
Beyond hardware and software for the viewers, there must be “bandwidth” capacity to locate and instantly deliver files. Francis said it would be an irritant for a judge in a civil case to have to wait 30 or 45 seconds for a summoned document to appear. But that would be a major setback for judges presiding over high-speed dockets such as traffic court or child support hearings. There, he said, judges may be handing 100 or more cases in a single session and a 30-to-45-second delay in each case would be a huge chunk of wasted time for judges, court staff, and parties.
There must also be a way to draw notice to emergency motions and other filings requiring judges’ prompt attention. Currently, folders are put on the judge’s desk with a prominent red tag. Sending an electronic notice might not be sufficient for a judge preoccupied in an all-day hearing or trial and not checking his or her email.
And judges will want access to files at home, Frances said, which will create security considerations and other adjustments, because counties will not be providing judicial viewers in judges’ homes.
While the focus remains on giving judges access to electronic documents, the system eventually will have to allow judges to send out rulings and orders, Francis said, which will bring its own set of challenges.
Creating the electronic system won’t be easy, but Francis is enthusiastic about the potential efficiencies and savings.
Pointing to a side table with folders for a half dozen cases, he said on a typical day cases could be stacked a foot or more high on the table, with a staggering amount of time required by clerk and judicial staffs to find and transport the paper files judges need for their cases. The fun only increases if another document is filed in the case while a judge has a file, forcing the clerk to create a temporary folder until the new paperwork can join the main filing.
All that will be gone.
Judges will have access to cases from anywhere. For example, Francis said a judge from Leon County might be assigned to try a couple cases on back-to-back days in Apalachicola, 92 miles away. But if the first case settles just before trial, the judge is faced with a decision either to drive two hours back to Tallahassee and retrace that route the next day for the second trial, or wait in Apalachicola with little to do for the rest of the day.
With judicial viewers and electronic documents, the judge may simply access his or her caseload back in Tallahassee and spend the rest of the day productively. Likewise, Francis noted, judges will have access to the latest filings from the outlying counties before they travel there to hear cases and motions.
“I think of it like the video conferencing capability, like hooking up the video hearings between the courts, the public defenders’ office, and the jail with the resulting time and effort and money saved,” he said. “Your work was that much faster because you were able to get ahold of those defendants right away without the travel back and forth between the jails and the PD offices. Everything was so much faster. The overall savings from that trickled throughout the system.”
Viewers and software could be ready for the four smaller counties in October, Francis said, but he anticipates Leon and Gadsden counties won’t be ready until sometime next year.
When will the entire system be finished and operational? Francis said he’s seen a date of July 1, 2014, tossed around, but he’s ready for it to take a bit more time.
What Francis and other judges around the state are looking forward to is largely in place in Santa Rosa County. It’s one of two or three counties that pushed ahead with electronic filing, judicial viewers, and paperless courts.
“Judges don’t have any files on the bench anymore; they have smartbench [an electronic access system],” said Santa Rosa Clerk of Court Donald Spencer. “Everything is being e-filed civilly, and a lot of criminal is being e-filed, and we’re moving forward with all of this.
“The transition had a few bumps in it, but most of our judges are excited about it.”
The improved access that Judge Francis longs for has one of the advantages.
“They [judges] can work on their cases out of the office, and when they’re out of town they can sign documents electronically, so when they come back to the office everything is not backed up,” Spencer said.
That’s a big advantage, according to Santa Rosa County Judge Robert Hilliard.
“The first day we used it and turned it on, I was able to go that entire day and did not touch a paper file, and have not touched a paper file since,” he said.
Hilliard recounts about using the First Circuit’s sole “hotspot” — a mobile Internet connection — to connect his laptop to the county’s electronic court records while a passenger in a car heading toward a meeting half a state away. “I was able to see my docket and work on my cases at 70 miles an hour going down the highway,” he said. “My docket doesn’t sit there and languish while I’m gone. I’m able to handle things.”
Hilliard joked about this good news-bad news observation about the electronic court: “The good news is you can work from home; the bad news is you can work from home.”
The system allows Hilliard — who was in the computer business for 20 years before pursuing his legal career — to sign documents electronically, and he foresees further development with e-service and the electronic issuance of warrants and other court paperwork.
The progression to electronic courts will have lessons and implications for law offices, he said.
One lesson will be the savings once the courts are fully electronic.
“In terms of giving us greater access to our files, it’s certainly doing that,” the judge said. “Also, paper is extremely expensive, not just to purchase it, but to move it, to store it, to handle it, and maybe to shred it one day at the end of its life.”
Another will be law firms’ electronic operations, as they seek programs that will work seamlessly with the courts and the courts increasingly get their input and do their output electronically.
“There’s a lot of law office management systems out there, and as time goes on they will more tightly integrate with things like the [statewide] portal [through which all electronic court filing is done] and search engines,” Hilliard said. “We’ll see the continued role and enhancement of these state programs like e-filing and e-service and judicial viewers, and we’ll also see the integration of law office programs, so individual law firms will be facing the same economic challenges that we are all facing.
“It affects everyone from the client to the taxpayer.”