State’s computers languish – Lack of money keeps courts from bringing systems into the modern age

If you’re hoping to find public court documents or other court information on-line in Montana, good luck — few are available.

And if you’re hoping Montana courts and the state are getting ready to fill this void, keep hoping — because they’re not even close.

Tribune Capitol Bureau

Nine months ago, Montana courts began collecting more money through higher "user fees" to upgrade their antiquated computer systems. But that cash is falling short of projections, prompting court officials to scale back already scant plans to inch toward a modern system for all 215 of Montana’s courts.

Judges and court officials say it’s time to recognize that temporary user fees and surcharges won’t cut it, if Montana wants its courts to have the tools to do their job and offer public, online access in the computer age.

"We need to be able to operate in the 21st Century, like everybody else, in a businesslike manner," says Supreme Court Chief Justice Karla Gray. "And these days, that includes information technology, like it does for any business."

There’s not much argument that Montana’s judiciary branch has woefully outdated computer systems.

At the Supreme Court, justices on the fourth floor of the Justice Building cannot use a computer to call up case documents from the clerk’s office a floor below or help organize their caseload.

The clerk’s office hasn’t had a serious computer upgrade since 1989, and cannot accept electronic data or documents.

State district courts cannot accept electronically filed court documents, and therefore cannot transmit these documents between courts, such as when cases are appealed to the Supreme Court.

State and local courts also have no statewide system to communicate electronically with each other, so a justice of the peace in Great Falls cannot check to see if someone in his or her court has multiple violations in another court in Sidney or Billings.

And as far as public, on-line access to public court records in Montana? Except for a State Law Library system that puts Supreme Court records on the Web, it’s virtually non-existent.

Judges and court officials say it shouldn’t have to be this way – and that the Montana public deserves a better system.

"We have an economy and a country that runs on-line any more," says Supreme Court Justice James Nelson, who chairs the court’s commission on technology. "There is certainly no reason why that shouldn’t apply to our society’s judicial needs as well."

As courts’ caseloads steadily increase, computer technology also could help courts work more efficiently and avoid even longer delays, he and others say.

Yet Nelson and other court officers generally concede that a truly modern system with public, Web-based access to court documents may be years down the road.

"It’s one of those goals that you’d like to do, but whether it’s going to be 10 years or 15 years, who knows," he says. "It’s not something that’s going to be done in the foreseeable future … With the financial situation that the state is in, I just don’t know where the money is going to come from."

The 2003 Legislature addressed the issue by agreeing to double the $5 "technology surcharge" on court transactions statewide to $10.

The old fee, levied on traffic tickets and other items, had been bringing in about $900,000 a year. Court officials guessed that the new fee would bring in twice that amount, or $1.8 million starting fiscal 2004, which began last July.

Court officials also completed a technology plan that included installing new "case-management" systems at additional county, city and municipal courts, improving computer systems at District Court clerk offices around the state, and upgrading the Supreme Court’s system.

They began making progress on these plans, adding eight staffers in the Supreme Court’s information-technology division.

In the past 18 months, the division helped install the new "case-management" system at 75 county, city and municipal courts. It also mapped out plans to improve computer technology at District Court clerk offices this year, upgrading those who need it to a Windows-based system and adding some additional programs.

But late last year, it became clear that income from the $10 surcharge was not coming in as expected. Now, court officials estimate the first year’s income will be $1.3 million, or $500,000 less than they’d hoped.

Oppedahl says plans to install the new case-management system in the remaining 72 county, city and municipal courts will be delayed. The project had been scheduled to be finished by June 2005.

One of the courts still waiting for the system is Cascade County’s Justice Court.

Justice of the Peace Sam Harris says his office had been scheduled for the upgrade by mid-2005, but now he’s not sure when it will happen.

He says he’s miffed that Cascade County, which generates a fair amount of money from the $10 surcharge, is at the back of the line for getting the newer system, which would vastly improve how the court tracks cases, payments and other data.

"It’s kind of ridiculous that we can’t get the (computer) program to support the system that generates those funds," Harris says. "It would be nice if we had a computer to keep track of all that money, and weren’t doing it on an abacus."

Oppedahl says larger counties like Cascade, Missoula and Yellowstone are at the end of the list because they tend to have more modern systems than the smaller towns, and because they take more time to convert to the new system.

Oppedahl says he still hopes to roll out the improvements for the District Court clerk offices in most counties in the next year, although he called these improvements a mere "Band-aid" over an old system.

Cascade County Clerk of Court Nancy Morton’s office won’t be affected by these improvements, because it already developed its own Windows-based system that keeps track of child-support payments, warrants, jury information and "docketing," which is a running tab on documents filed in court cases.

Cascade County computer staff helped develop the system, and Morton’s office has never adopted the state-sponsored system that’s in many court clerk offices.

"I couldn’t see taking a step backwards," Morton says. "I just thought I would wait until they caught up with us."

However, like nearly all District Court clerks around the state, Morton’s office cannot "scan" paper documents into an electronic system, accept electronic filing of documents, or offer on-line access to public court documents.

One of the most archaic computerized document systems in Montana’s judiciary is at the Supreme Court itself.

Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith’s office uses a system developed in 1989, which keeps track of the "docket" – the list of documents and actions for each case before the court – but does little else.

"There has been almost no money spent on any (computer) programming for my office or the Supreme Court in my 16 years here," he says.

Late last year, the state Board of Crime Control funded a $65,000 study on a computerized "case-management" system for the high court and its clerk’s office. It recommended a system that can electronically store, track and analyze the reams of documents and case data handled by the court.

"Without a significant change, there will continue to be no efficient way for the clerk of court or the Supreme Court to provide critical court-related statistical information to (other state agencies) and the general public," the report said.

The cost of a new system: $750,000 to $800,000.

Smith says he already knows there’s no money for the purchase, since money in the court technology fund is already spoken for. He’s been talking to the state’s congressional delegation to see if they can scrounge up some federal money somewhere.

Brian Wolf, the state’s top computer-technology officer, says there’s no doubt the judiciary’s technology system must be improved. Information in the court system is a critical component of the state’s overall justice information, which includes law enforcement, "homeland security" and the prison system, he says.

"It’s one of those seminal places that we have to make solid," Wolf says.

Yet, as he and others talk about the problems, it all comes back to one thing: Money.

Justice Gray says the court probably will propose a new technology budget to the 2005 Legislature and ask for a different way to fund it. She’s not sure what that request will entail: "We obviously have to find several alternative funding mechanisms and present them to the next Legislature."

Smith and others say the court system shouldn’t have to rely on a "user fee" to pay for computer technology, while other agencies get money out of the general state budget or from other, more reliable sources.

"Why should one branch (of government) that has to do day-to-day business for the state basically have poor technology?" Smith says. "It just doesn’t make sense. … The longer this goes, the court systems are going to get farther and farther behind."

Mike Dennison can be reached by e-mail at , or by phone at (406) 442-9493.


Can we afford not to computerize the courts?

Court officials from the Supreme Court down to municipal courts don’t have to convince us of the value of computerizing operations.

To the contrary, they probably should be explaining how it happens that three years into the 21st century they still aren’t fully computerized.

Indeed, this may be a good example of a key difference between government and private enterprise: how the two structures handle their capital expenditures.

Courts have been struggling with the computerization issue for the better part of two decades, and — no surprise — that’s about how far behind they are.

Bits and pieces of the justice system have gone online, but the major chunks still rely on handwritten ledger entries, tedious library-type research and gross inefficiencies.

We’ve heard much of this discussion before, and various approaches have been tried — most recently the doubling of the "technology surcharge" on court transactions.

But we agree with Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith, who says the courts shouldn’t have to rely on a "user fee" to finance computer technology.

The way it works in the real world — indeed, the way virtually all technological advances work — is that new technology is financed by the improved efficiency it brings to the workplace.

It’s the "return on investment" model of improving things. And note that we call it an investment, not an expense.

In other words, in the case of court computers, you’re not just buying gizmos to make life a little easier for employees, you’re investing in something that will provide a return — in the form of efficiency and productivity — just as surely as buying treasury bills or certificates of deposit.

In fact that is pretty much the way you figure out if a capital investment is worth making: If the measurable gains in efficiency and productivity exceed what you could make buying CDs or T-bills, then you’re a fool if you don’t make the capital investment.

No offense to the hundreds, if not thousands, of court workers spread over Montana’s 215 courts, but we’d be very surprised if that much efficiency couldn’t easily be squeezed out of their offices if they had the right tools.

And that says nothing of the tremendous efficiencies and service improvements that could accrue to lawyers — prosecutors, defenders and civil litigators.

"With the financial situation that the state is in, I just don’t know where the money is going to come from," laments Justice James Nelson, who is chairman of the court’s technology commission.

We sympathize with that, because the courts are forced to rely on the executive and legislative branches for the financial framework in which they work.

But the state should take a serious look at doing a serious ROI analysis of computerization of the courts — and other government services.

With "the financial situation the state is in," we’re not sure it can afford not to.

For comments, tips or corrections: Call Managing Editor Gary Moseman at (406) 791-1465 or (800) 438-6600

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