SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Eyeing a generous infusion of cash from Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget, the Judicial Council of California is pushing to modernize the courts with tech innovations that should make navigating the justice system a little easier.
At its business meeting Friday, the administrative agency for the state’s courts touted a pilot project created by the appellate courts to move trial records and electronic transcripts from the trial courts to the appellate level. The council expects the move will streamline the appeals process, saving courts and attorneys loads of time and money and ensuring people's cases are considered in full.
Compiling an appellate record can be tremendously time-consuming, as all documents related to a case must be photocopied and assembled along with a court reporter’s transcript and physically sent to the appellate court. Courts estimated they were spending 10 hours on each file per year, according to the Fifth Appellate District.
A new system called the Transcript Assembly Program allows trial court clerks to electronically forward documents to both the appellate court and the attorneys working on the case.
The project was initially launched in 2017 with a $25 million grant which funded about 50 projects comprising the Innovation Grants Program. It began with the nine courts comprising the Fifth Appellate District in Fresno. By the end of 2019, it was being used in 30 courts.
“My clerk staff insisted that I find time over the holidays to come so they could show me how much easier it is made their lives,” said Presiding Judge Ann Moorman of Mendocino County, an advisory member of the council. “Frankly, every judge, certainly every presiding judge, should take the opportunity to watch the assembly of a record now. It is really far less labor-intensive.”
It also saves paper and valuable office space in a cramped courthouse.
“Frankly because we’re a little tight on physical space in our courthouse, not having transcripts spilling over copies being made and being left in the copy machine, that's not happening," Moorman said.
“I have been waiting for this for a long time,” said council vice chair and Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin, who asked how to get the rest of the courts in the state on board.
“What is the biggest problem for getting the rest of the courts online” he asked Brian Cotta, head clerk at the Fifth Appellate District, who presented the project to the council.
Cotta replied: “The capital ‘C’ word – Change,” Cotta said. “Change can be tough, especially for the smaller courts. Sometimes like anything else it gets missed in all the other things going on. For some it's just a challenge to fit it in.”
Cotta said all the appellate courts are currently interested, and he's optimistic that it can be rolled out statewide.
Chin said digitizing the appellate record is a crucial time-saver for getting cases before the Supreme Court. In one instance, an electronic record on a death penalty case saved a capital attorney six months of work, Chin said.
Judge David Rubin, who chairs the council’s budget committee and oversees its grant program, said the grant funding was critical to getting the project started, and that more of these projects will help the courts to use their clerks more efficiently.