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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wisconsin Justices OK|Statewide E-Filing

MADISON, Wis. (CN) - Wisconsin's lead judges had money on their minds Tuesday and voted, after hours of testimony, to implement an all-electronic state court filing system.

As a result of the unanimous vote, mandatory e-filling will begin "rollout" on July 1, 2016, with all counties under the system for civil, family, paternity and small claims cases by the end of 2017. All cases will be e-filed by 2019 under the current plan.

The court will meet again on March 17 for another rules hearing and conference, before which court staff will gather more detailed finance information.

The office of the Director of State Court's Committee of Chief Judges in 2014 petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to eliminate almost all paper filings from the state court system, a change the state declined to fund in its 2015-2017 budget, according to testimony.

Hopes for a brief set of updates since the March 2015 hearing were soon dashed as the judges repeatedly asked questions well beyond the allotted speaking time, over the protestation of Chief Justice Patience Drake Roggensack.

Roggensack initially allotted 15 minutes to Fond du Lac County Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert J. Wirtz, chairperson of the Committee of Chief Judges, 10 minutes each to Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Sankovitz and Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Randy R. Koschnick, and five minutes each to the remaining six speakers.

The hearing that began at 9:30 a.m. adjourned for lunch at noon.

Most of the speakers sang the praises of e-filing, echoing the committee's memo in support of the petition.

"Among other benefits, electronic records decrease data entry, improve the speed with which information can be retrieved and shared, reduce staff time and storage costs, and improve storage security," the memo states. "These benefits apply to both courts and law firms."

The amended petition comes eight years after voluntary e-filing became widely available, a system 51 of Wisconsin's 72 counties have embraced to some degree.

"However, the volume of filings remains very low and litigants and courts have not yet seen any increased efficiency as a result of e-filing," the memo says, testimony that was contradicted by county court clerks who had already transitioned to voluntary e-filing.

The committee thus convened a subcommittee to study ways to increase e-filing, their memo states, and found other jurisdictions have succeeded with mandatory e-filing.

"Training and technology will be rolled out county by county over a three-year period," the committee said. "At the end of that period, all circuit court files will be electronic and all attorneys and high-volume filing agents will be required to file electronically."

Pro se litigants will still have the option to file on paper, a two-tier system that mirrors that of the Milwaukee branch of the Federal Court system.

Wirtz, who intended to give a brief overview of updates since the petition's last hearing in March 2015, said further delays would be a waste of the money and work already done on the project.

"We're at a point that we need to make a decision," he told the court.

"As a wise person once said, there is no free lunch," Wirtz added, foreshadowing significant attention to the funding aspect of the change. "We do have to pay for this somehow."

The current scheme is a $20 charge per party, per case, paid upfront by the filer, usually an attorney.

"But the lawyers do not pay the fee," former chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson said. "The client does and the loser does," referencing the assignation of court costs in a lawsuit.

Wirtz and Sankovitz reasoned that attorneys also charge for the costs associated with paper filings, such as copying and mailing, which may cost parties more than $20 per case.

Further, Sankovitz said, attorneys are increasingly including fee considerations in their hourly rate and not assessing the costs directly upon clients.

Another issue that took up significant time was the question of public and press access to new filings.

Attorney Robert J. Dreps from Madison-based Godfrey & Kahn spoke on behalf of several media outlets - including Courthouse News Service - to advocate changes to the proposed rule to protect timely open-records access.

"We are only trying to prevent deterioration of that access," Dreps said. He noted that Wisconsin reporters regularly visit circuit courts and review paper documents the day they are filed, and this access has been slowed down by days in jurisdictions that have implemented mandatory e-filing.

The clerk of the Dodge County Circuit Court testified that access is improved with e-filed cases in her experience, and clarified for the court what constituted a "filed" and "accepted" case - the difference is between handing it to the clerk and the clerk stamping it as complete and paid.

"In other words," Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler said, "it's not a case until the clerk makes it so."

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