Justice makes a motion to put court papers online

Consider this scenario:
It’s 4 p.m. and a lawyer with the Justice Department has to make sure a filing gets
hand-delivered before the federal district court closes its doors for the day.


Or, another lawyer wants to review all the documents concerning a case. He has got to
get to the courthouse during open hours and request to see the court docket. And because
there’s only one copy, he has to hope no one else is already reviewing it.


Electronic filing and access to court documents might radically change those two
situations. But first, court officials must work out the details of bringing the process
into the digital world. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts would like to begin
deploying a system late this year.


The office is running prototypes of the system in nine districts, with about 5,000
active cases and another 1,000 being added each month, said Gary Bockweg, electronic case
files initiative manager.


The cases are all civil and bankruptcy filings, but eventually the courts will add
criminal cases, he said. The prototype system uses several Compaq ProLiant servers,
including a 5000 model, a couple of 2500s and a newly added 3000, said Andrew Sirotta, a
research computer scientist and development manager for the project.


The system’s Web server is a 200-MHz Pentium Pro with 256M of RAM, a 4G hard drive
and one unit of RAID storage. The database server is a dual 200-MHz Pentium Pro with 800M
of RAM, an 80G hard drive and five RAID units.


The application software, which runs under SunSoft Solaris, stores data in a file
management database from Informix Software Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif. The courts team
wrote the application software primarily in Perl, C and JavaScript.


Because the program stores files in Adobe Portable Document Format, users need only a
browser and Adobe Acrobat Exchange to retrieve or file documents, Sirotta said. The
information submitted electronically by lawyers is safeguarded during transmission using
the Secure Sockets Layer, which verifies the source and destination, encrypts the message
during transmission and assures message integrity.


The federal judiciary is in the process of deciding whether to go with the prototype or
ask for new proposals from vendors, Bockweg said. The prototype system does not have all
the functions the prototype team would like, he said.


An issue that must be resolved is whether to make the system accessible to the public,
Bockweg said. The prototype is available to anyone, but it’s uncertain whether such
access will be available when the system goes nationwide, he said.


Privacy is a big concern, he said. Although court documents are public record, they
have not been easily accessible. To dig up information on a neighbor, friend or enemy took
time and effort, not minutes at a PC, Bockweg said.


But electronic court records available on the Internet could give someone immediate,
anonymous access to case files. Bockweg said judiciary officials are not sure about making
access that easy.


When the prototype project began two years ago, the judiciary considered using a
virtual private network, Bockweg said. This was for performance, as well as security,
because the Internet was thought to be too sluggish, he said. Neither has proved a
problem, however, he said.


The judiciary also must decide whether to charge users a fee. There would be no fee for
lawyers to access documents in their own cases. But lawyers using the system for research,
for example, might be charged, Bockweg said.


Jeanette Plant, a lawyer with the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, is leading a
Justice Department Performance Review Lab that is looking at some of the user issues
involved in filing court documents electronically. Although the federal courts are
responsible for putting the system in place, she said, any electronic filing mechanism has
to be attractive to lawyers or they will not use it.


As the nation’s largest law firm, the U.S. Attorneys Office provides a good test
case to see whether an electronic system will work, Plant said. The lab is sponsoring a
study as part of one of its existing litigation support contracts.


“What we hope to do is have these contractors go into the districts where we are
participating in the electronic filing systems, prepare workflow studies for the existing
paper system—how we do it now essentially— prepare workflow studies for how we
do it electronically and, to the extent we can do it, quantify time and cost savings and
user satisfaction as well,” she said.


Plant said the purpose of the project is not just to convert an existing paper system
to an electronic one.


The shift would save many steps involving filings to the courts, she said. “For
example, in the current paper system, if I file a pleading and I have 10 opposing counsel,
I would file the paper in court and I would have to provide service copies to each of my
opposing counsel,” Plant said.


But with a real-time online system, she would only need notify opposing counsel that
the document had been posted and they would have immediate access to it.


“Some of the issues we are looking at is what kind of notice of service is
it,” Plant said. “Is it an e-mail notice of service? Is it paper notice of
service? What if the system is down and it is not immediately available to them? What if
they can’t get into it for some reason? What if the file is corrupted in transit and
they can’t read it? What if I go to file it today and something goes wrong on the
Internet and it takes 48 hours to get there but it was due today?”


Plant said all the issues can be resolved, but they have to be identified first.


There is also the question of providing for signatures on electronic documents.
Primarily, the courts are accepting attorney log-in names and passwords, Bockweg said.
“For our purposes that is your signature,” he said.


Client signatures are more complicated. “We’re looking at digital
signatures,” Plant said, “Ideally we would like to test digital signatures with
the courts.”


Other possibilities include filing an image of a document with a client’s
signature on it as part of the electronic file or having the attorney, as an officer of
the court, certify that the signature was received, Bockweg said. In the latter case, the
attorney would hold the original copy of the signature in case the court requests it, he
said. 

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