By Gary Blankenship
With public defenders, court clerks, trial courts, and state attorneys scrambling to begin electronic filing of criminal cases by October 1, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority is recommending that deadline be pushed back where necessary, but to no later than February 1.
The authority board held a special meeting September 5 to hear from representatives of local courts, state attorneys, public defenders, and court clerks on their readiness to begin electronic filing. The court last year set an October 1 deadline to requiring electronic, instead of paper, filing in all criminal cases.
Electronic filing in civil cases began last April. The authority runs the Internet portal through which all electronic filing is done.
Authority member and Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall said he spoke with Chief Justice Ricky Polston the day before the meeting.
“There is a recognition that people are working hard, but some people are not going to make [the October 1 deadline],” Hall said.
But rather than issue an order giving a blanket deadline extension, Hall said the court wants a list of who is ready and who isn’t, so any extension will cover only those still working on implementation. Polston wants that information by September 18 so an order can be issued by September 20, “so everyone knows where they stand coming up on the October 1 deadline,” Hall reported.
Authority Chair and Putnam County Clerk of Court Tim Smith said the authority would assemble a matrix for each county and list whether the local courts, the clerk of court, the state attorney, and the public defender were ready to begin. He said the authority would assemble its final list September 11 (after this News went to press) so it could be forwarded to the court in plenty of time.
Authority members said a list of clerks ready to receive e-filings would be posted on the authority’s website and continually updated so private attorneys would know which counties were ready for electronic submissions.
A major issue is getting the portal ready to accept batch filings, which allows state attorneys and PDs to file multiple documents in multiple cases at one time. Several representatives from state attorney offices attended the meeting and said their offices were not set up to handle “single session” filing — where documents can be filed in only one case at a time — even if their local clerk is ready to accept single session submissions.
The authority unanimously approved a motion to recommend to the Supreme Court that, for those offices requesting an exemption to the October 1 deadline, e-filing for criminal cases becomes mandatory in a county no later than 30 days after the local clerk certifies an ability to receive batch-filed cases and in no case should that date be later than February 1.
Smith noted the authority’s report will include the readiness of four entities in each county: state attorneys, public defenders, the local courts, and the clerks of court. In addition, the state attorneys and public defenders will be asked about their ability to do batch and single session filing, and whether that affects their ability to e-file.
Authority members noted some participants in a county could be approved for e-filing even if other parties require a delay; i.e., clerks and public defenders could begin e-filing even if the state attorney is granted a delay.
Batch filing is proving particularly time-consuming in the complex process of preparing for criminal e-filing. Jennifer Fishback, the e-portal project manager, gave the authority a reminder of the difficulties. She noted that clerks, state attorneys, and public defenders around the state use different software to file and receive cases. In total, there are 36 different software combinations in use around the state to file and receive cases. Batch filing adds further complexities in that each combinationmust be tested through the portal before e-filing can begin, she said.
Fishback reported 13 counties were ready for single session criminal filings and many more were expected to be ready by October 1. A few counties were upgrading case management software and may not be ready for single session by October 1.
As for batch filing, she said a few counties were expected to be ready by October 1, but the last might not be ready until February 1.
State attorney representatives expressed concern they might be expected to begin e-filing with little or no chance to test batch systems readied at the last minute, and several said single session filing was not practical.
Bill Buckles, technology officer for the Third Circuit state attorney, summarized the sentiment of the prosecutors when he said his office isn’t organized to do anything but batch processing, at least partly because of the time prosecutors must spend in court.
“It’s not that we prefer batching,” he said. “We can’t conduct the business of this office with single-session filing.”