If you’ve tried to vet a blind date or potential roommate in Alaska, you’ve probably heard of CourtView, the Alaska Court System’s electronic case management system. The online public part of the system shows who’s involved in court cases, hearing dates, pleas, the judge, case disposition — the metadata of court cases.
With some exceptions, how that information gets into CourtView is surprisingly analog. For now. An all-digital future is a long ways away, but the courts are taking some crucial steps in that direction.
It’s a Monday in the clerk’s office at the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau and records clerk Amanda Beebe-Bay has an inbox tray on her desk with a stack of mail several inches high. It’s more or less a typical Monday.
“Slash Friday, ‘cause Fridays are short days,” she says. The court system began closing its courthouses early on Fridays and furloughing many of its employees in 2016 as a cost-cutting measure.
She flips through the paperwork of one envelope, keys in a bunch of data, and runs through some mental checklists. Eventually, she grabs an assortment of official rubber stamps for a particularly satisfying part of filing this small claims case.
“Today’s the 22nd,” she says, then thunks down the date stamp. “Then you’ve got a judge stamp. So once they get this,” thunk, “then they have five days to decide if they don’t want that judge or not.”
Stamping is also her hobby.
“That’s actually what I do in my free time. I stamp cards,” she says, with another thunk.
Some documents get mailed out to the parties. Some become the official case file at the courthouse. They go into an old-school green legal folder that gets labeled with a bar code. There are hundreds of folders of various colors and judge stickers and numbered codes on the shelves.
Like typos in data entry, some filing mistakes are inevitable.
“Because we are hand filing all of our files … it’s very easy to accidentally put, you know, this into 2-18 instead of 1-2-18,” Beebe-Bay says amid the shelves. “Especially if you’re filing a lot of the same case type at the same time. … So every once in a while we have a little scavenger hunt.”
Until this small claims case is closed, that bar code is supposed to be scanned each time the file moves, like checking out a library book. If two people want the same file at the same time? Well, someone’s got to wait.
Much of the formal communication between the court and the parties going forward with this case also must be done with hard copies. Which means more data entry, plus postage or couriers and days of lag just moving documents around the state.
The point is, there’s a lot of literal paper pushing and literal rubber stamping woven into the court system’s daily operations. In 2013, the system estimated the trial courts took in 4.5 million pages of documents a year this way, according to its contract solicitation for the tech upgrades. State courts handle over 100,000 cases a year according to the court system’s annual reports.
At some yet-to-be determined point, that will all change.
Court employees at Kenai Peninsula courthouses have been piloting electronic filing and document management systems for limited case types the last few years. And later this month, the court system plans to expand that pilot to include criminal cases there and bring on its first external users — like law enforcement agencies.
The goal is to reduce the workloads of clerks like Beebe-Bay and eliminate the delays and errors inherent to the physical system. It should also improve access to court records and free up courthouse office space.
“Well, it’s a big change,” said Tracey Buie. She’s managing the court system’s efiling implementation. “Change management has been one of the things we’ve had to deal with. This entire system is a sea change in how we operate as a court system. We have procedures that are very much tied to paper documents. So this idea of converting to electronic documents means changes to many of our procedures.”
Court system officials said they don’t have estimates for the impact of switching to an electronic filing system.
“We don’t have metrics in terms of how much it will save,” said Doug Wooliver, the deputy administrative director for the system. But some of his colleagues traveled to other states to see what they had done, “and all of them saw significant savings in terms of reduction in the needed staff to manage all of your cases.”
And the office space dedicated to case files isn’t trivial.
In Juneau’s courthouse, there’s several rows of shelves in the main clerk’s office, plus two small rooms used for older case files with some unresolved element, like a possible appeal or a conviction with a lengthy probation period. In the basement records room, some cases go back to the 1980s.
There’s even a fourth, unofficial and temporary file storage area. Boxes of cases are stacked up in part of area court administrator Neil Nesheim’s office, on standby to ship to Anchorage. Nesheim said Anchorage hasn’t been taking them, pending repairs to shelving damaged in last fall’s earthquake.
Anchorage has a lot more dedicated storage space because digital conversion and access is already part of a case file’s life cycle — the end. Resolved cases from all over the state are shipped to Anchorage for centralized scanning, digital archiving and shredding.
“When you’re storing thousands and thousands of files … if you go in, like, the Anchorage courthouse, there’s a huge room of nothing but paper files,” Wooliver said.
The overhaul has been in the works for years. State lawmakers approved the first capital budget request for the efiling upgrade in 2011, hoping to be done by 2016. The final budget request for the $13.5 million project in 2014 set the completion date for this June. The court system says that’s not going to happen.
The courts and its vendor ImageSoft have been running a pilot of the new system internally for a few years at its courthouses in Kenai, Homer and Seward. A court system spokesperson says beginning May 8, non-court employees will get access for the first time. Like lawyers and Alaska State Troopers based on the Kenai Peninsula.
Tracey Buie with the implementation team said they’ve been taking feedback from court employees and improving the system. They’ll get more feedback as users adopt it.
“Once they’ve had experience using that system, and we see how that goes, we’ll make a decision on how and when to roll it out to the rest of the state,” Buie said. “Hopefully it won’t need a bunch of changes at that point, and we’ll be able to continue the rollout.”
The software world usually moves fast. But even it slows down for the wheels of justice.