WHEN I RECENTLY sought a public document from a state court, the clerk asked me to request it by fax. In 2022, who operates via fax?
Reporters are not alone in their woes with the court’s antiquated technology. Many courthouses do not have wi-fi, even for employees who move between their desks and a courtroom. Judges work from paper case files, so motions must be printed and brought to court.
With the House passage Thursday of a $164 million bond bill for information technology at the judiciary, there is finally a glimmer of hope that the courts may join the 21st century.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd testified at a legislative hearing last March that the bond bill has the potential “to transform and modernize” the courts and “improve the experience for all who use and work in them.”
Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Michael Day said on the House floor that while the principles of the judiciary are ancient, “the technology and systems our court personnel rely on should not be.” Day said the last time lawmakers voted on a similar investment in court technology was a quarter century ago, when “Windows 97 was state of the art.”
The bill includes $94 million to create “digital courthouses and courtrooms,” $35 million for courthouse security, and $35 million to modernize administrative operations. Policy changes include letting a court seal be printed electronically, authorizing electronic signatures on documents, and considering electronic documents equal to paper documents.
A presentation prepared by the court in support of a similar bond bill in 2020, which was derailed by COVID, lays out how the court hopes to use the money. The goal is to create a digital courthouse, where all documents can be created and managed electronically by litigants, attorneys, and staff.
According to written testimony by Trial Court Administrator John Bello, submitted to the Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets last March, the pandemic forced the courts to improve their technology. There is now some electronic filing for documents in six of seven court departments. People can pay fines and fees online. The court can deliver documents online, replacing what had been a paper mail system.
But court Chief Information Officer Steven Duncan said in his presentation at the March hearing that e-filed documents must still be printed by a clerk and added to a paper file, then a clerk manually updates the court information system and creates a paper docket. A deputy court administrator quoted in Duncan’s presentation described it as “e-collecting, not e-filing.”
Trial Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke said in testimony that from a judge’s perspective, the courts are still very much a paper-based system. ‘While we have made great strides setting e-Filing into place so that attorneys and self-represented litigants can file case-related documents electronically, it is all for naught if the case file must still be printed out and brought physically into the courtroom,” Locke said. Locke said letting judges access electronic files will free clerks up from printing and compiling. It will allow real-time docketing, so parties can see judicial decisions quickly.
Updating court systems could save trips to the courthouse. A 2017 survey of courthouse users found that 11 percent came to file paperwork, 4 percent to make payments, 5 percent to search records, and 3 percent to get information – activities that could potentially be done online.
On the security side, the money would go toward physical security and cybersecurity. The operations money would go toward making the courts operate more efficiently, including upgrading bandwidth, improving employee remote access, and installing an energy management system.
The 2020 presentation says court information technology has been consistently underfunded. The court system historically has spent 2.8 percent of its operating budget on technology, while the average expenditure across industries is 4.6 percent and in government is 9.4 percent.
Lawmakers in 2018 required the administration to create a new data tracking system to connect all elements of the criminal justice system, but that project has been slow to start. Court officials hope to ultimately replace the entire MassCourts information management system, but that would require additional money and not happen until 2028. Some of the simpler initiatives in this bond bill – like installing wi-fi – could occur as soon as 2023.