State Courts Go Digital as Budget Pressures Mount

State judiciaries see technology as a means of becoming more efficient and saving money.
by | November 15, 2012 AT 8:00 PM

Judges logging onto computers at the bench instead of lugging around case files. Police officers filing for a search warrant online instead of knocking on a judge’s door at 2 a.m. Attorneys uploading briefs on a secure server instead of hauling a stack of papers to the courthouse.

That is the likely future for our state and local courts. But it’s not a future built on the eager adoption of new technologies. Rather, that progress has been borne of the state budget crisis and the pressure it has put on the judiciary to do things more efficiently.

Between FY 2009 and FY 2012, 43 state court systems were hit with budget cuts, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). They aren’t optimistic about the near future either: 82 percent of court administrators expect their budgets to stay the same or get worse over the next three years. It’s been a sobering change for the judiciary and legislative branches alike: in Vermont, the state supreme court took 14 furlough days in 2011 and 2012 to save about $1 million. Vermont House Speaker Shapleigh Smith recalled how he felt driving by the state courthouse and seeing its doors locked when they should have been opened over the last two years.

“Every day I saw it, I thought that we were failing the people of Vermont,” he said during a discussion Thursday sponsored by NCSC, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators at the National Press Club.

So state courts are doing what they can to perform their duties smarter and cheaper—and that often means going paperless. Take Utah, for example. In the last three fiscal years, the state general fund revenue has dropped by nearly 20 percent. The courts felt that loss through a 9 percent budget cut and a 10 percent reduction in staff, while at the same time experiencing a 16 percent increase in case filings.

Pressed by those fiscal realities, Utah brought its courts into the 21st century. They started by switching to digital audio, instead of professional court recorders, to document all court activity. The civil side of the system has gone completely paperless, with all filings occurring online. Payments are made through online transactions. Warrants are filed through an electronic system. The courts also established an online self-help resource, designed particularly for self-representing litigants, and set specific performance metrics to gauge how they were doing.

“There are probably few businesses that rely on paper more than courts,” said Matthew Duran, Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court. “So what we’re trying to do is operate without paper.”

Those proactive initiatives were appreciated by a state legislature dealing with a budget crisis that touched on all aspects of state governments. “They shook up the courts like I’ve never seen any corporation, public or private, shake it up,” said Utah State Rep. Eric Hutchings. And the public seems pleased, too: a 2012 survey found 81 percent of the public was confident in the state court system, up from 78 percent in 2006, despite the staff reductions and record-level case filings.

But the transition from paper to paperless isn’t always easy, as the California courts discovered. They faced the same kind of problems: since FY 2009, the judicial branch’s budget has been cut by more than 30 percent, and most of the 58 superior courts have reduced their hours or shut down branches altogether. They’d seen the need for reform all the way back during the 2002 recession and started planning a new statewide computer system. It was supposed to save $300 million annually. In 2011, it was set to launch—and promptly “went up in smoke,” in the words of Tani Cantil Sakauye, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

None of the systems were able to talk with one another, she said. The superior court couldn’t communicate with the local department of family services. The state supreme court couldn’t exchange information with the local courts. That prevented the system from being more efficient, its entire purpose for existing. One judge described it as “the electronic Tower of Babel.”

“I used to call it the Ferrari in the garage—but we couldn’t pay for gas,” Cantil Sakauye said.

Despite that failure, the California courts are reorganizing and going back to work. Initial planning is underway for a better electronic court system—and the state is taking lessons from its neighbors in Utah. The judiciary branch has also finetuned its lobbying skills in the last two years, partnering with the state bar association and the state chamber of commerce to explain the need for a smoothly running court system.

With the recession lingering in the minds of many policymakers, the argument has become an economic one, said Pat Kelly, president of the California State Bar Association.

“The very engine of the economic recovery is small businesses, and small businesses can’t function without the court system,” he said. “They rely on the orderly administration of state government.”