The move is seen as a way to increase efficiencies
Mary Johnson, Santa Rosa’s Clerk of the Circuit Court, got a letter from the Supreme Court April 4 allowing her to discontinue the requirement to have paper follow-up documents in all of her criminal court areas, meaning she could go all electronic for court filings.
“I was ecstatic,” Johnson said. “This was the day I was waiting for.”
That day marked the end of the lengthy process Johnson had undertaken over the past few years to finally going paperless, being able to use an electronic record, and creating what she says is a better work flow for her office and the courts.
Since the beginning of the budget cuts in 2009, clerks across the state have been holding tight to their purse strings and cutting positions, freezing vacancies, and instituting furloughs. The Santa Rosa Clerk’s Office was no different.
“We were lucky to be able to handle the cuts through attrition and freezing positions,” Johnson said. “We continued to freeze positions as they became available since that time. Now, as often as we can, we are using a temp agency to fill in the gaps when we have a need on the court-side.”
But Johnson also saw aging technology and felt a new approach would help her create efficiencies, easing the workload on staff, as well as creating a more effective process in the courtroom.
“I have been in the courtroom since we handwrote in docket books,” Johnson said. “I knew what we had could be better, but I have been waiting for the right case maintenance system to come along that incorporated so many of the requirements of recent legislation and e-filing.”
Johnson upgraded her case maintenance system last year, allowing her office to image, redact, and accept e-filed documents, making her office compliant with Florida law, and setting the stage for going paperless. The new system allows clerks to provide images to the public on demand that are redacted of sensitive information, creates all required financial reporting that formerly had to be done in another system, and allows for faster docketing and case processing.
Installing the new features connected her case maintenance system to the Florida Courts E-Filing portal, allowing her office to accept electronically filed documents. Beginning a few months ago, Johnson and her staff urged local attorneys to begin sending their documents electronically. Through local demonstrations, she was able to help them see that using www.myflcourtaccess.com would save them time and money.
In March, Johnson’s office processed more than 970 documents filed electronically, filed on cases in eight of the 10 court areas. In the first few weeks of April, the numbers climbed even further. There were 400 documents filed in the first week, 121 in just one day.
Statewide, the focus has been on e-filing all civil cases. But Johnson took the system further to incorporate criminal case filings. Florida clerks have chosen December 31 for clerks to be ready to accept e-filed criminal documents.
“It really didn’t take us long to set up our docket codes in this new system to be ready for criminal filing,” Chief Deputy Adair Cotton said. “We started with a few cases to make sure it worked efficiently. Then we worked with our local state attorney’s and public defender’s offices to make sure the portal was easy for them to use and went from there.”
Johnson reached out to Bill Eddins, the First Circuit state attorney, and Public Defender James Owens, offering them an opportunity to try their hand at e-filing criminal cases in Santa Rosa County.
“Our Santa Rosa office started some test filings in January to see how it would work,” Eddins said. “While we are aiming for batch filing, we have found that electronic filing has not slowed our Santa Rosa office down at all. We are now sending all case documents through the portal, where they become immediately available to the judge and the clerk. We are discontinuing all paper and only send the clerk follow-up documents of those verified pleadings, those forms that require a real signature.”
Alice F. Harris, the Public Defender Milton Office chief, remarked, “We find that using the portal does not hamper our workflow at all. We have begun using it in the Felony division as a test and it has gone well. I look forward to filing on all our cases this way.”
With that support, Johnson then brought the electronic file to the Santa Rosa County courtrooms. On April 3, County Court Judge Robert Hilliard tested the system during his regular criminal proceeding and never touched a paper file. Hilliard is among several judges who now have a computer on the bench, so he can use the new touch-technology system.
“I can bring up the pertinent file and the document needed, and, with a series of taps and touches, I was able to get through 109 criminal cases that day and never touch any paper,” Judge Hilliard said.
Circuit Judge Marci Goodman was also part of the demonstration: “Innovations such as this allow for the judicial system and its partners to continue serving the citizens of Santa Rosa County in a faster, more efficient manner.”
First Circuit Court Administrator Robin Wright spoke to the collaborative nature of the project. “Without Clerk Johnson spearheading this effort, we would not be going paperless yet. Johnson has created this partnership that we feel is going to change the way we do our work. Through the paperless processing we can become a model for the state.”
Johnson can see ways to expand the use of the system, to include first appearance, pretrial release or other types of judicial process. “Getting documents from the other court partners electronically, such as corrections or probation, would be of real help,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes that her patience and hard work has finally paid off.
“The letter I received in early April from the Florida Courts Technology Commission allowing my office to discontinue receiving paper copies of documents, sent as follow-up to an electronic filing, confirms that the Santa Rosa Clerk’s Office has arrived. We have set the bar for the rest of the state for clerk and court workflow efficiencies.”