Episode 032: “Back to the Future” of Court Technology


Did you know our Senior Justice Consultant Brad Smith was around when eFiling was just gaining momentum and the Earth was still cooling? Of course, Scott, ImageSoft’s Product Visionary, was only poking fun, but he makes a valid point: what it means to be a digitally transformed court today is much different than even just a couple years ago.
 
Join us for this punchy conversation on the evolution of electronic filing into criminal, family and other case types, making files more publicly accessible, the growing acceptance of cloud solutions, the need for digital evidence management solutions and, most importantly, how progressive courts are going about all of this.

Check out this episode!

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Kevin Ledgister: Welcome to the Paperless Productivity podcast where we have experts give you the insights, knowhow, and resources to help you transform your workplace from paper to digital and making your work life better at the same time.

Thanks for joining us today. My name is Kevin Ledgister, your host. Today we’re talking about some key trends with court technology. For those listeners who aren’t in the justice space, we’re going to be talking about a lot of concepts and a lot of things today that, no matter what industry that you’re in, you’re probably going to find that they’re going to relate to you somehow. So, go ahead and listen in. This is going to be a free range discussion with a couple of people that I highly respect who have been on the forefront of this technology transformation in the judicial system, and they both had been in podcasts before. First of all, I want to welcome my Scott Bade, who is our President and product visionary for ImageSoft. Welcome, Scott.

Scott Bade: Thank you. Hello.
Kevin: With us also is Brad Smith, a Senior Justice Consultant for ImageSoft, who has had many years of experience in the industry working with a number of different firms. Brad, welcome back to the call.
Brad Smith: All right, thanks Kevin. Appreciate it.
Kevin: Yeah. Thank you, guys, for joining us today. Today we’re going to talk a little bit about a range of different discussions, but I want to start off with the subject of efiling. For those of you who aren’t in the justice space, e-filing, or electronic filing, which is more the proper term, it involves submitting legal documents to the courtroom via an electronic portal. Kind of similar to how you would submit your taxes through a efiling portal come April 15th. Of course, it’s much more efficient and secure than mailing your documents or dropping off to the courthouse. It’s a great boon forward for both of the constituents, and also makes it also convenient for the courts, as well.

Now, efiling has been around for a long time. As a matter of fact, I believe it started back in the 1990s when we used to use radioactive bricks for cell phones, but like mobile phones, e-filing has really evolved over the years and opened up new possibilities that we really didn’t envision when this all started. Scott, I’ll just start with you, and then Brad, please feel free to chime in. Take us down the yellow brick road of efiling and how that’s changed over the years.

Scott: Oh, that’s a big one. I’ll try to keep it brief. Brad can talk really about before the earth cooled, when e-filing was first started probably back in the early nineties. But the federal government started doing e-filing with some of their courts many, many years ago, and paved the way for what became really a standards-based mechanism for filing that has really become mainstream at this point. E-filing, I think it’s no longer a new technology, it’s no longer leading edge technology, I wouldn’t say. Although, there are certainly components of it that are, and we’ll talk about those. But I think most courts either have a system, or at least they have a direction for getting a system within the next few years.

We’ve crossed that threshold and now we’re really moving into the, at least the second and possibly third phase of electronic filing, which really is … there’s a lot of analogies in other businesses about when you become digitized to a certain primary level and then you move on to the next level. The next level, from my perspective, for courts is, and for the folks that surround the court and work with this data is, what’s next? What can you do now that you’ve, now that the lines at the clerk’s counter have gone, a lot of the manual data entry is gone, and you’ve got a whole bunch of new digital data in nice clean form, PDF files and data relating to both new cases and existing cases.

Well, there’s a lot of things to do. A lot of courts only started in certain case types like civil that were heavily funded by the plaintiffs, and now so that a lot of the next wave, the second wave, if you will, is to move into the rest of the case types that aren’t maybe as well funded from the plaintiff bar. So that we’re obviously talking about criminal, a lot more of the family matters. A lot of our customers are moving in that direction.

Once you’ve got efiling, some other things that our customers are thinking about, and I think that progressive courts and justice enterprises are thinking about is, what about the courtroom? How do you make the courtroom efficient in working with digital information? Because it is a very different paradigm from paper files being handed back and forth to a point where you’re dealing with everything in digital form.

A couple of other things and then I’ll let Brad chime in here. Another thing that we’re seeing a lot of our customers really starting to work towards is more public access to the case file. That’s obviously fueled by efiling. Then the third is maybe not so much thought of, and maybe even as a third or fourth wave, is managing other types of content. I’m speaking specifically about digital evidence. As we get into criminal cases, how do we deal with all the large amounts of evidence data that can also be filed to the court but are managed in a much different way? Especially when you’re dealing with criminal cases, you obviously have much more secure security considerations and things like that. Those are my big three. I’m curious what Brad Smith thinks.

Brad: Well, Brad Smith, I’ll talk to myself as a third person individual at this point. No, I think what’s interesting is, when you were talking about the early stages of efiling, and LexisNexis started in 1990 with complex litigation based out of Delaware. There was an immediate need, because even the clerks realized at that point in time, as well as the judges, that you can’t have crates full of paper pleadings coming in and be able to manage that effectively. Still, at that point in time, they took off. Then the next route or wave was not only the complex litigation on a corporate level in Delaware, but then there was asbestos cases, for example, in Cleveland, Ohio. That was 1998.

Then you were mentioning the federal courts. They dipped their toe in the water in 2001 with their district courts. Then they slowly expanded to bankruptcy courts. Then they, by about 2003 – 2004, they said, “Hey, look, let’s do this throughout the country.” There was some immediate benefits obviously to the attorneys, to the clerks. Certainly, they don’t have to scan documents anymore. Then, but even more importantly, was the judges, at least on the federal level, felt like that they could actually look at electronic documents in the courtroom and be able to digest that and not feel reliant on paper files. Which, from a larger perspective, you would’ve thought that that electronic filing would take off. It just seems very natural that if you’re creating a document electronically and you submit it electronically, then of course the court and the clerks should ingest it and use it electronically.

To my surprise, where I thought electronic filing would take off, like electronic legal research, it really hasn’t to this point. I mean, we are expanding, we are doing extremely well. I think over the last three or four years we’ve certainly turned the corner. Certain states have chosen to do electronic filing and we’re embracing it. But even when you do electronic filing, I still feel like there’s a workflow component, that it’s not just simply getting those documents in electronically, but the court is the hub of information, when you were talking about that, Scott, in terms of the access to justice. There are so many different parties that touch the court, public defenders, prosecuting attorneys, probation offices, Secretary of State, Department of Motor Vehicles. The list goes on and on. Department of Corrections, for example, when you talk about criminal efiling, and we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to effective use of electronic workflow.

Scott: Yeah.
Kevin: I was just going to pick up on that point of electronic workflow and getting in, because, Brad, as you mentioned, we got a lot of documents into the court through electronic filing, which was great. But we’ve seen sometimes with some of our customers and some of the courts that are out there, that they’ve just struggled with, what do we do with the documents when they come in electronically? There’s still a lot of processes just as stamping, certifying, signing, those types of things, that some of the systems can’t really account for. That’s, that’s been key.

Then also the communication back to the filers in terms of letting them know there’s a signature missing, those types of things, and all the collaboration that goes back and forth. Can you maybe, guys, just take a … and I don’t know where you were going Scott, but maybe in your conversation maybe, or response, just touch on that a little bit in terms of where we’ve seen that development.

Scott: Yeah, I think it’s a great point. I mean, it goes to the point of, what do you do now, right? Once you’ve got this electronic data flowing efficiently into the court, how do you really use that data to achieve maximum benefit for not only the court and the filers, but the public that also has access or rights to this data? Then sometimes a party on a case. I think the NCSC, the folks, I’ll give them a little kudos here for the last few years, really pushing a, what they call a component model, which allows courts to really work with best of breed technology.

I think workflow, as Brad had mentioned, technology where you can configure the routing and the rules for how data moves and documents move through an organization electronically, and can be configured by end users instead of programmed, is a very important piece of that. You touched on a couple of other of those kind of key components. Electronic signing is certainly a key component. It’s necessary at several levels. Providing tools for certification and other things like that are important. There are some.

Again, to the NCSC’s credit, they identified that really not one vendor … It doesn’t make sense for one vendor to provide every piece of technology that a court is going to use. We should allow for some innovation and some best of breed. For example, electronic signing, there are electronic signing vendors out there that specialize in that, and so we should be able to use that technology within a process and within the court. I think we’re certainly big proponents of that approach. I think that really benefits the courts.

Kevin: One of the things that, Brad, that you touched on in your conversation was you talked about the fact that we’ve got this electronic data in, and Scott just talked about that, and electronic signing. But we’ve struggled a little bit in terms of what’s happened when it gets actually into the courtroom and the proceedings are taking place. I’ve been in courts where they have electronic filing and they have a electronified process for handling documents as they come in. But then when you get into the courtroom, you just see stacks of papers and you see a ton of papers that are going out. Where are we at in terms of getting judges that kind of technology that makes them really streamlined and efficient on the bench? As well as, how do we handle the mounds of paper coming in or things that they have to sign? Just as Scott has mentioned electronic signatures, maybe you can touch on that a little bit in terms of where you see things going.
Brad: Yeah, I think judges more and more, although it’s ironic, I mean, you get some judges and most individuals think that, okay, well there’s an older judge so they do not embrace technology. Then you have a younger judge and you would assume that they are totally aware of technology and the advantages of it. Yet, I’ve seen judges use an e-bench or judicial dashboard, just to use the vernacular that Florida comes up with, in order to access the electronic records. Certainly, in Florida when they mandated electronic filing in 2014, one of the things that the Judges Association made loud and clear to the state administrative office of the courts was that, hey, look, we need a tool, ourselves.

To Scott’s point of component model, not all case management system vendors really have a … I mean, for the most part, their products do a tremendous job processing documents and collecting statutory fees and doing a lot of benefits for the clerk. But at the end of the day, most of those products are not really geared to a judge who is not processing one document at a time. They certainly need to take it to the next level, because a judge throughout the year could have 600 cases on their docket, and they are not only looking at the documents that have been filed in the case two or three months ago, but then also certain hearing structures. So, they need to be diversified.

That was one of the things that judges requested was that they needed to have something that was really customizable to a judge’s either court, be it civil or criminal, juvenile, family, but it also needed to be able to be customizable to a judge’s preference, because everyone runs their courtrooms a little bit differently. You can ask one judge to always think a certain way while judge in court B is thinking a completely different way, even though they’re both in civil or both in criminal.

Then finally, the most important thing was that it had to be easy and efficient. If it’s not as fast as paper, then you’re going to have someone reluctant to move forward. At the end of the day, we can typically speak to judges and/or clerks and/or attorneys. If you are removing a pain point in terms of their everyday, let’s process things through, basically getting to the end of the day and disposing the case, then you certainly do a great job at that. The technology’s out there right now, and I think it’s being more and more adopted, and people expect that. They expect speed, they expect convenience. I think that we really, over the last year, well, actually, over the last three or four years, I think that the momentum’s picked up quite a bit.

Scott: I think, to dovetail on that point, I think that really the whole computing environment, the advent of the cloud and cloud-based systems has really brought a lot of this technology much more within reach of your smaller and mid-sized courts that maybe don’t have a ton of funding for a huge IT staff and a bunch of servers in a computer room. I think what we’re seeing as a major trend is, and we’re seeing this not only in the justice arena in government, but in all industries, is the cloud has the potential to really make things (a) more secure and (b) bringing the initial price point down to a point where everybody can get the technology without huge strains on the budget.
Brad: Yeah, and I totally agree with that, Scott. I mean, I think that’s amazing. If we brought up the cloud five years ago, people would just be scared, especially the more rural, smaller locations around the country. You get to Tennessee where there’s 95 counties, or Georgia, there’s a 159 counties, and there’s … or even Texas, where there are counties where there’s more cattle than people. There’s no expectation that they would have an IT staff to be able to maintain servers in those small locations.

What you end up getting is, now that the cloud has become just almost a savior for those individuals, to allow them to take advantage of technology without having to really put a great deal of effort of maintaining and having patch Tuesdays on a server, and trying to make sure everything is working. Or heaven forbid that someone actually unplugs the server and is like, “Oops, my bad.” That’s the kind of stuff that I think the cloud is now readily accept accepted as the next best thing, or the best thing, I should say.

Scott: As part of our work, we’ve had to get involved in a lot of criminal case processing. The security requirements that are involved with criminal cases, the FBI CJIS requirements, just for as one example, are so difficult to meet, that for even a well-funded court to be able to provide public access to that data and be CJIS compliant, is extremely difficult. That’s where the cloud … and things like all the major cloud providers have very secure regions built for government that that meet CJIS and FedRAMP and other requirements. They put millions and millions of dollars into a platform and achieve those certifications so that the court can be comfortable storing their data and be assured that it’s very secure, and the hackers are not getting the data, but the customers are.
Kevin: Scott, you referenced a little bit with the NCSC, which for those who aren’t familiar, that’s the National Center for State Courts, how they’d been promoting this idea of a component model where you don’t need to buy everything from one vendor, that you can really purchase best in breed or best in class innovation from anyone. With this going to the cloud, how does more and more solutions going towards a cloud help them facilitate this component model where courts can really choose the best of what they need?
Scott: Yeah. The cloud in itself is just a giant component model. It is a platform that requires systems to be able to interact, inter-operate with one another. That’s really, I think, the NCSC vision for the component model is that you can buy, for example, a signing package from one vendor, you can buy a case management system from another. You can buy an e-filing system from a third, and you can bring the three systems together into a complete workflow that works for the court.

That was extremely difficult in the old world where things were very proprietary. The cloud has really forced vendors to open up their APIs and open up their integration capabilities so that these systems can talk to one another. Really, every modern cloud-based system today has … a significant part of it is being an open system that can be linked into with other systems. That’s really a great evolution just in IT, in general, that I think NCSC realized, applied significantly to the justice world.

I’m just happy that they had the vision to see that because I think that that makes … Really, it opens a door for innovation and new capabilities that are maybe bite-sized, that people don’t have to upend their entire operation to adopt. That they can buy a piece of functionality or a component that can solve a particular challenge or pain point, and get that to work within their environment.

Kevin: Along with that cloud, and both of you can comment on this, I know we’ve talked a little bit about mobile and bringing smart phones into the courtroom, and that sometimes a challenge. But even before we get to that point, when you do have a cloud solution, it really does almost un-dock yourself from being tied to your desk or tied to your chambers. It gives core staff a lot of freedom to be able to interact with their workflows and what they need to do with respect to being able to pull up a device. Maybe you guys can talk about that a little bit because I think that’s a pretty big development that we’re seeing on the horizon.
Scott: You want to tackle that one, Brad?
Brad: Yeah. I mean, I think in terms of the mobile capabilities, there’s actually a … That’s interesting you brought that up, because in the National Association for Court Management, which I recently was at their conference, one of the things that they’re tackling in one of their more recent podcasts, I think it’s actually scheduled a little bit, about a month from now, is, is it time for a fresh look at cell phones in courts? You go to some courts, and by their estimation, there’s 285 million cell phones in use in the United States. I mean, if you take someone’s phone away, it’s like taking a pacifier away from the baby. There’s so much information. Usually, courts are sending out text messages to remind individuals of their court dates and court times in court rooms.

Then, yet, you go to certain locations, and you’re not allowed to bring your phone into the courtroom or to the courthouse. It totally defeats the purpose of communicating out to the public via mobile technology. Where’s that balance? Is it just a matter of texting to remind them, or is it a matter of scheduling things? From an attorney perspective, it could be, you want to use a scheduling technology to set up some pretrial meetings with the judge and trying to find out what’s their availability. Obviously, from a consumer perspective, it’s just being aware, and if you can use mobile technology in order to pay your fines or be able to just see things from a mobile perspective in terms of, okay, I want to search a case, do a little research on it, versus going to the public website, then certainly we have some advantages there.

I don’t know if we’re really quite there yet. Although, I think with the Joint Technology Committee in association with the National Center for State Courts, one of the big things that the most recent court summit was that they were seeing the 5G evolution of phones and/or the capabilities of it will allow for a fresh look at, what are the possibilities? I don’t even think that they have an idea of what could be done, but it certainly opens up a door to more opportunities for the constituents.

Scott: information that the mobile phone brings. The state of Michigan is right now just opening up their courtrooms because they realize that, for the reasons you said, obviously, it’s a communication channel. Now, they’re concerned about people taking pictures in the courtroom and in different … and there’s ways to manage all those issues that such a smart device brings. But I think it’s only a matter of time. I might be optimistic, but probably within the next two or three years where this conversation will be over, and they, every courtroom, every government facility is going to allow them, except for maybe the very strictest places like maybe the jail and some of those places. But, I think it’s going to change quick.
Brad: I think you’re right. Although, it’s funny because I’m like, “Man, this is so straightforward. I can’t believe we’re not even moving forward with this.” But then, I’ve had individuals on the criminal side, like devil’s advocate, of, so they’re dealing with a criminal trial, and they have an individual sneaking a phone into the courtroom and then taking a picture of the material witness. Then they obviously immediately confiscate the phone from the individual, but they’ve already hit send. I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s a very logical thing.” I mean, so maybe step one is to allow the phones in the courthouse, but as soon as you get to a criminal court room, then there are certain restrictions apply. I don’t know, but I’m hoping that they’ll get to some point in time where there are options for the individuals coming into the courthouse.
Kevin: I would even think that, even from a access to justice perspective, and we talked about it from smartphones and mobile phones in the courtroom, but I was even just thinking about the fact that, what happens when the judge is away from his desk or outside, and there’s an emergency hearing, or somebody needs a protective order, or the prosecutor’s just got some real time evidence and they need that warrant to be signed. For the judge to be able to have to open up a laptop and log in and go in and access his documents.

Whereas, if he was more mobile-enabled, that he could be much more responsive. That way, we can … That adds additional layers of safety to our constituents, as well as potentially being able to intercept, or when a case is ripe or there’s some evidence which is ripe, that prosecutors can go after that. Those are some of the other things I was thinking of, too, that this information is opening up with the mobile technology.

One other thing I want to talk about, since we are talking a little bit about mobile, is really just in recent years, just the explosion of digital evidence. Since everybody is just … You talked about 285 million smartphones in the country, everything has just moved in that direction. There’s photographic evidence, there’s video evidence, there’s audio evidence, and a lot of documents, a lot of things and information that we’re used to seeing and used to passing around in courtrooms where it might be on a cassette tape or a stack … banker’s box full of papers.

It’s all digital now, and that’s becoming more and more of a nightmare to manage. Or even just police cams, suddenly more and more police cams. I live in Nashville and they’re talking about rolling out body cams to all the police departments. You talking about, how do you manage all of that data? Because video is just so data heavy. What are we seeing that’s happening on that front?

Scott: Yeah, I think, yeah, it’s a great point. I think what this problem screams for, it usually … When a problem like that pops up, it usually starts with simple solutions that aren’t very scalable. That’s what you’re seeing. I think the body-worn camera makers have repositories where things can be stored and retrieved, and that works fine. But when you start thinking about the long term management of digital evidence, the care and custody and control of that, and all the legal requirements, it really requires an enterprise, more of an enterprise approach.

That’s where I think we can … the digital evidence area can learn from what we’ve gone through over the last 2030 years in the document management world, which is systems that are able to store and index and manage data, and get rid of data in a very efficient way. That’s what I think the answer is, is to really expand technology that we already have to just manage this additional type of media. Now, this additional type of media, particularly video, does have some interesting attributes. They tend to be very large in size. You can’t just download a one-hour video in any timely fashion. You need to do things like stream it.

That’s where the cloud is very helpful, because the cloud has … YouTube’s been around a long time, but that same technology that YouTube is based on is basically packaging and streaming video in a very efficient way, can be and is being brought to bear to solve this problem. I think you’re going to see more and more criminal courts and prosecutors and district attorneys using, as well as police departments, as well, using this technology to store it right out of the gate. So, when it comes from the scene of the incident to preserving it long-term, and even taking it into the courtroom and making it part of the case, part of discovery and all the other areas that media or that content needs to be consumed, the technology in the cloud are there.

I think that’s really a perfect fit, because again, even a midsize police department is not going to want to put up the terabytes and terabytes of server storage on their own premises and have to manage that for the longterm. That’s where the cloud, which can get very … can get storage cost to a very low point, and it can get an access to a very high point, really, I think, shines.

Brad: Yeah. On top of that, Scott, is, what I was amazed when we started getting more educated on the digital evidence is just how many parties and individuals that are involved. You were mentioning you had body cams, you have dashboard cams, you have Ring doorbells, you have Nest, you have individuals that buy some video from Best Buy, at a convenience store. You have a meta group of people in Illinois, and it was at a university, so there was Champaign-Urbana. They had body cams from Champaign, they had body cams from Urbana, they had body cams from the university police, mass transit authority where there’s typically six cameras on a bus. You would think that that’s really where the state’s attorney is involved. But it’s also in the invested court and the police department and their investigation staff, and having to be able to parse out all this data.

As you were talking about, certain, an hour or two of video, when really, the actual crime maybe had been committed in a four-minute segment. How do you manage that? But then also how do you expand and provide discovery to the other parties involved? When we typically meet with jurisdictions, the best way to go about it in terms of bringing in all the stakeholders, you would think it’s a fairly small group, but when you get to it, it’s the judges, it’s the prosecuting attorney, the law enforcement, the public defender, private attorneys, and they all have their own applications to how they need to either use or distribute that video evidence. Even jury rooms or in chambers where they need to segment things out and have it be a workable product.

Scott: Yep. Totally agree. It’s a complicated problem.
Kevin: It is, and it’s one that’s ripe for solving. Any other final thoughts or comments in terms of where you guys see court technology going, or things that are looming on the horizon that we need to pay real attention to?
Scott: I guess from my perspective, this is … We’re on a continuum of digitalization of the justice system. Maybe we’re at the 15 or 20 yard line on a … if you put it on a football field. We’ve got a ways to go. Some great work’s been done. Courts do, and justice environments do tend to move a little slower because of just their conservative nature, which is I think the way they should move because they’re dealing with people’s lives and very important information.

But I think that the next few years are going to be fun because I think we hopefully will be able to take and gain some speed here and move maybe across midfield within the next few years to getting really everything in the justice environment in a digital form. Then, as we talked about earlier, within a process so that it’s flowing to the right people at the right time, and it’s being used and leveraged to serve the public, which is really the goal of all justice agencies.

Brad: Yeah. I have to agree. This is scarily my 31st year in the government market, and mostly courts and government, state and local government. I would think, while it’s been an incredibly … You have to have the patience of Job kind of approach to work in this market. I do feel like we are just scratching the surface on where we need to be. I think the reason why the component model is so attractive is that technology is changing so quickly.

That in the past, you may have embarked on a larger project, which may take two or three years to complete. By that time on those larger projects, if you’re trying to do a one size fits all, by the time you get to the end, your technology has already passed you by and you’re looking to make changes immediately. I think that that’s the beauty of the cloud. That’s the beauty of technology and being nimble and being able to adapt quickly to the constituents’ needs. It’s an exciting time.

Kevin: It certainly is. Gentlemen, I just want to thank you for participating on this podcast today. I really enjoyed this conversation, and I think our listeners will find it very insightful. For those of you who are listening, if you want more information on some of these things that we talked about, as well as where you can contact some of us if you want to have further conversations, you can go to our website at imagesoftinc.com/courts. That’s imagesoftinc.com/courts. Thank you, and have a great day.
Scott: Thank you.
Brad: Thanks Kevin.

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