|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JUNE 2007|
toward a court system worthy of the 21st century
By Janine Robben
In early 2010, water-poor Klamath County expects to get flooded. With paper.
The submission of an expected 1.5 million documents as part of the Klamath Basin’s water-rights litigation — and the effect that dealing with them will have on that county’s court system — is just one example of why Chief Justice Paul De Muniz is pushing for a fully automated state court system.
"I’m telling anyone who will listen, around the state, that I want the judicial branch recognized as prudent stewards of our resources," says De Muniz, whose Oregon Judicial Department budget request for the 2007-09 biennium included about $53 million in general fund money and debt financing for what he calls "e-Court" functions. "I want us to be recognized as competent and efficient producers of the work we’re assigned to do."
The problem is that another resource has — like water in Klamath County — been in short supply in Oregon in recent years.
That resource is money.
While Oregon’s federal district and bankruptcy courts already have adopted mandatory electronic filing, "e-Court" at the state level is competing with other interests both outside of and within its own department.
As a result, the co-chairs of the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee recommended cutting the judicial department’s budget to a level that would provide no funding for e-Court.
But De Muniz is undeterred.
"Once I became the leader of the judicial branch (in January 2006), it became my privilege and opportunity to try to lead the court system into the 21st century," says De Muniz, who has told Oregon state court administrators to be ready to have e-Court in place no later than five years from now.
"We are performing a core function of government," says the chief justice of the argument that the department’s needs can’t take precedence over schools and health care. "We’re not a special interest. I hope that showing our initiative, our planning, will convince the legislative branch of the merits of our request."
While the chief justice currently is the driving force behind e-Court on the state level, the concept has been under study since February 2005.
That’s when the state bar’s board of governors formed a task force to study the electronic filing of pleadings over the Internet.
The task force, which issued its report in November 2006, surveyed bar membership; studied the federal e-filing system (which becomes mandatory on Aug. 1); talked to vendors of e-Court technology and looked at other practices around the country.
Of the 216 sampled active bar members who responded to the survey, almost three-quarters said they would use e-filing in state court if they had the option.
The amount of paper involved in the current paper-filing system is staggering: 10,000 boxes of it, weighing 250 tons, were received for filing or provided in response to copying requests by the Oregon Judicial Department in 2005 alone, according to the task force report.
But eliminating or reducing the amount of paper flowing through the state court system isn’t the only reason to convert to e-filing, say De Muniz and his staff. There’s also the desire to protect the information from the kind of disasters that befell both the Klamath and Marion County courthouses in recent years.
In 1993, Klamath County — the county that’s expecting the deluge of paper records in 2010 — suffered a natural disaster when an earthquake damaged its courthouse, among other buildings. Klamath County’s trial court administrator, Valerie Paulson (who was not administrator at the time), says the court’s files were salvageable. However, she says that during the six years between the earthquake and when the new courthouse was completed, court staff had to transport the physical files between four separate locations. "One of the real issues we had was how to transport them," she said. "The best solution we came up with was airline suitcases."
In November 2005, the Marion County Courthouse sustained damage when a man drove his truck into the building and then set fires inside. As a result of the fires, says Trial Court Administrator Jim Murchison, almost all circuit court files from before 1980 were destroyed. In addition, says Murchison, the courthouse had to be emptied, and intact files had to be boxed up and stored in a warehouse in Eugene for the nine months it took to repair the building. As a result, requests for files took several days to fill. In some cases, Murchison says, judges who had physical files in their offices were unable to get them back during the hiatus because no one knew in which boxes they’d been placed.
Not only would electronic filing of documents avoid those kinds of problems, but it also would make the "courthouse" available to anyone from anywhere at any time.
"We want to make it (e-Court) accessible 24/7," says Bud Borja, the judicial department’s chief information officer. "If you want to file something at 10 o’clock at night, you would be able to."
"Amazon and e-Bay have raised the bar," adds Borja. "You can order a Christmas gift on Christmas Eve and it will still show up on time. We haven’t evolved to that model. We’re still 9 to 5. That’s not a business model that works."
In addition to e-filing, De Muniz’ vision of a state electronic court would replace the department’s current case management system, the Oregon Judicial Information Network (OJIN) and its Financial Information Accounting System (FIAS).
Under the current system, circuit court staff enters events, like a case filing or the filing of a pleading in a case, into the OJIN system. Authorized users — which include both public agencies and private entities that pay for OJIN access — can then call up that data online.
But the department’s ability to run the system is waning.
"It is a homegrown system, written over 20 years ago with technology (COBOL) that is no longer taught," explains Borja. "The work force that knows how to program it is at retirement age."
The system also is widely viewed as clunky. "It makes me very frustrated when I have to look up stuff in state court," says Hood River bankruptcy attorney Carolyn Smale, who spends most of her time using the federal court’s system. "OJIN is not user friendly."
Once a user finds the event he’s looking for in OJIN, he still has to trek to the physical location from which the data originated if he wants to see the paper documents underlying the data entry, or order copies of the documents.
That’s not good enough for De Muniz.
"What I want to do is build the most accessible ‘courthouse’ in the state," he says. "I want a common experience for every citizen (trying to access court records), regardless of location."
In pursuit of that vision, De Muniz submitted a biennium budget that included $18.3 million in general fund allocations and $35 million in debt financing for e-Court. But while the total general fund budget for the department represented only 2.6 percent of the overall state general fund budget, the governor’s office recommended that the judicial branch’s share be cut by almost $31 million. De Muniz had requested $359.6 million for all purposes, including e-Court.
Even worse, the co-chairs of the legislature’s joint Ways and Means Committee, which is the next step in the state budget process, proposed a department budget of $304.4 million. That amount is less than the department needs to fund current services, let alone new initiatives, according to Deputy State Court Administrator Sarah Gates.
"The budget proposed by the co-chairs contains no general fund money for e-Court," says Gates. "Absolutely none."
"The co-chairs have chosen to invest in other areas, such as K-12," Gates continues. "(But) the judicial branch is important, just like education and health care are important, to a vital society. You have to have a healthy judiciary to get to the goals set forth by the co-chairs."
The committee’s co-chairs, Democratic Sen. Kurt Schrader of Canby and Democratic Rep. Mary Nolan of Portland, both told the Bulletin that they are sympathetic to the court system’s need for technological upgrading.
The problem, says Nolan, is that "the legislature faces some very difficult choices in its budget decisions. The judicial branch budget presents some of those difficulties, just like most major departments. Simply put, no major general fund agency is likely to receive all of the budget it has requested. Specifically for the Judicial Department, my top two priorities for funding, if additional revenue can be raised, are modernizing the court’s technology and raising judges’ salaries. I am working hard to achieve some progress in both."
De Muniz’ budget also sought money to raise the salaries of state judges to $125,000 a year. Currently, Oregon ranks 50th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for judicial salaries not adjusted by cost of living, according to a revised ranking by the National Center for State Courts released in March.
Gates says that if general fund money is not allocated for e-Court development, the department will not be able to shift money to that initiative from other funded program areas.
"Because we (the department) are so people heavy, and the courts’ budgets have been cut significantly in recent biennia, we don’t have $50 million, or even $10 million, that we’re going to just find to pay for this technology," she says.
Despite the current lack of funding for e-Court, the department is going ahead with planning for the future. On May 1, the Oregon Supreme Court began requiring briefs to be filed both on paper and electronically. "That’s our beginning," says De Muniz. "Our view is the supreme court should be the leader."
And De Muniz has told the state’s trial court administrators to be ready for e-Court by no later than five years from now.
That’s been stressful, especially for staff in some of Oregon’s more far-flung counties.
"Probably the hardest thing for us is training," says Michele Leonard, trial court administrator of the La Grande-based 10th Judicial District, whose two judges cover both Union and Wallowa counties. "Every trip to Salem is five to seven hours one way. They say, ‘Let’s have it (the training) in Bend.’ Well, that’s five hours for me. It gets tedious. With technology on the fast track, I hope we can get more creative with training opportunities for staff who have to drive."
Still, Leonard knows the benefits of technological innovations as well as anyone: video conferencing has allowed her expansive district to have face-to-face hearings without people actually being in Eastern Oregon.
Multnomah County Trial Court Administrator Doug Bray, whose courts generate more documents than much of the rest of the state put together, says he thinks Oregon is probably within 24 months of having e-filing for civil cases in some counties. "The department’s technology committee is still working on which counties," says Bray. "The largest counties will get the greatest relief (from electronic filing) by having staff freed up to do other kinds of work … that doesn’t receive sufficient attention now because we are focused on moving and tracking millions of paper documents. And e-filing would provide the biggest statewide return to the greatest number of members of the bar and Oregon’s population by coming first to the most-populated counties."
"The chief justice came in and said he wanted us to change the face of the Oregon Judicial Department to our customers in three to five years," says Bray. "It is probably going to take all of the time he set to make this happen, but he is going to make this happen."
If so, no one will be more pleased than Paulson, the Klamath County trial court administrator. If e-filing is not fully in effect by early 2010, Paulson is expecting to receive 1.5 million paper documents related to court challenges to a provisional executive department order allocating water in the water-short Klamath Basin. She fears that at least two or three of the county court’s 37 staff members will have to be diverted to deal with the documents, threatening the operation of drug and other specialty courts.
"When that truck pulls up to my back door to disgorge the records," says Paulson, "it is my profound hope to hold out my hand — and take the disk."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben has been a member of the Oregon State Bar since 1980. She is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
The full report of the bar’s E-Filing Task Force is available on the bar’s website.
© 2007 Janine Robben