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.
“We were able to really push hard and get this branch to start really entering into the 21st century,” he said. “Time is money. The fact that we can save all this time now means a clerk, instead of assembling an appellate record, can now maybe work at a window and get someone out of line and back to work faster.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakuaye lauded the program as important for court users, whose cases are often impaired by the want of a complete and accurate appellate record.
“I think this is a tremendous leap forward. This makes such a huge difference to courts end-to-end users, but also to the public to better stand a chance of having their case actually be heard on the merits,” she said.
Gov. Newsom’s $4.3 billion budget package for the judiciary included about $10 million this year for IT projects, and with years of severe budget cuts in the rearview mirror, the state Senate’s representative on the council said perhaps it might be time to revive a long-dead tech project to create a uniform case management system.
“I hesitate to do this but I’m going to throw it out there. Many years ago, you tried to have a unified computer system,” state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said, to titters throughout the meeting room. “I can’t even remember the name of it.”
The project to which she referred, called the Court Case Management System, was an effort to connect the state’s 58 trial courts and various “justice partners” through one unifying software system. Built from scratch by pricey consultants, it was an enormous endeavor that drained a half-billion dollars from taxpayers and was projected to cost at least $1 billion more, according to an audit released in 2011.
The council eventually pulled the plug because it couldn’t convince the Legislature to pump more money into it, and more courts ended up going with off-the-shelf systems.
Jackson said the council should take advantage of the credibility it has built with the Legislature in recent years, along with a tech-friendly governor, to revisit the idea.
“A few years have passed. We have become more sophisticated. It may be something you want to take up this year. it’s not quite as radioactive because like so many other things, people forget,” she said.
Jackson’s modest proposal didn’t garner much discernible interest but other projects are in the works, like technology that will allow courts to communicate across individual case management systems.
More self help-based technology programs, like one that will help people pay their traffic tickets online and apply to have their fines and fees reduced based on their ability to pay, have also gained more traction.
Judicial Council staff director Martin Hoshino said he hopes the traffic program will be expanded statewide, as fines and fees are an “acute problem” throughout the state and are excessively burdensome on low-income Californians.
“We’re seeing reductions that are over 50%, and most importantly, we see we’re hitting our target population,” he said.
“About 79% of the folks that were actually availing themselves of this new program were at or below federal poverty level.”
New courthouse construction also tops the council’s wish list. Last year, it sent the Legislature a list of 80 new construction and renovation projects it hopes to get funded. Newsom’s 2020-21 budget package sets aside about $2 billion of the necessary $13.5 billion to get all those projects completed.
“That’s about all we know, candidly,” Hoshino said. “We don’t know really the true schedule associated with it or what the expectation is.”
While the council was set to discuss a five-year plan on construction projects, it was pulled from the agenda. Hoshino said the council does not want to be too hasty in its planning without knowing more details about the funding.
“It’s probably premature for us until we know more about how we actually thread this list of projects with the $2 billion,” he said. “What the schedule is and when we will get the money may affect what it is we do. We feel like we need to understand it better before we put it before the council.”