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Digital future awaits Cook County courts, but first there’s that carbon paper

Saturday, November 25, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Steve Schmadeke

More than 15 years after the federal court system went paperless, Cook County Circuit Court clerks still spend their days ferrying stacks of Manila case folders and entering handwritten judges’ orders into an antiquated computer interface.

Many judges and attorneys still use carbon paper — a cotton-gin-era innovation for simultaneously making multiple paper copies.

But after years of lobbying by frustrated attorneys, the county will soon take an important step toward catching up with a world that already does much of its business online.

Nearly all new court filings in Cook County and across the state must be submitted electronically starting Jan. 1. It’s an important step experts say, but one that still leaves the state years behind the federal system, not to mention less populous states like Iowa and Wisconsin.

E-filing is intended to cut costs, increase convenience and make tracking cases much simpler.

Not every county is likely to make it. So far only one Illinois county — DuPage — has petitioned to be exempted from the New Year’s deadline mandated by the Illinois Supreme Court, a spokesman for the high court said. But the impending deadline has lawyers, judges and legal observers wondering if Cook County is really ready to make the switch and if the transition will save taxpayers money.

The transition could be jarring — only about 38 percent of Cook County’s roughly 178,000 civil case filings so far this year have been submitted electronically, though the number has climbed from about 21 percent last year, according to clerk’s office figures.

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, who said she has pushed for electronic filing since taking office more than 16 years ago, acknowledged there may be some hiccups but said her office is prepared.

“We’re the second-largest unified court system in the country — there’s going to be some challenges,” Brown recently told the Tribune. “We’re going to ask people to be patient. We were not given a pass or more time (by the Supreme Court) than someone with one courtroom in their county.”

Brown’s office, which the Tribune reported last year was under federal investigation for its hiring practices, does not exactly have a reputation for efficiency.

County board members this year cited their lack of trust in her staff when they approved a $1 million contract for a technology company to oversee the rollout of a nearly $37 million case management system to replace the outdated mainframe system currently in use. The clerk’s office is also facing a federal lawsuit alleging that it takes days or even weeks for electronically filed lawsuits to become public even though paper filings are available the day they’re filed.

Figures provided by Brown’s office show the current e-file system has been down only six days this year, and Brown said that if the new system can’t handle the caseload, her staff will shift filing to the old system. Courts have until this summer to work out the kinks in the new process.

Already, some savings have been realized. In Cook County, the costs of printing court forms has dropped nearly 67 percent from last year to $145,000. Brown said clerks in her office will retire their file stamps and shift to helping customers e-file their cases. Non-lawyers who represent themselves will continue to have the option to file cases on paper.

“Requiring e-filing in Illinois will modernize and simplify the process of filing documents for everyone involved,” Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier told lawmakers during a budget speech this year.

But although Brown’s office is frequently criticized, experts say much of the blame for Illinois’ slowness in moving toward e-filing is the balkanized structure of the state’s court system and a wait-and-see approach by the Supreme Court, which oversees court operations in all of Illinois’ 102 counties, some of which are too small to have their own dedicated courthouse.

“Let’s just say the Supreme Court was very cautious,” said Jim McMillan, the longtime courts technology guru at the National Center for State Courts. “But it was the economics of Illinois’ courts system structure basically that resulted in delays and obstacles that had to be hurdled.”

The state’s court system is “unified in name only” said Marcia Meis, director of the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, which means that there is no cost-sharing or a statewide budget to cover technology expenses. Only last year, state legislators passed a law allowing court clerks to collect a $9 fee on all new civil filings to help cover the software costs of switching to an e-file system.

And while many practicing attorneys question why Illinois doesn’t have a system like PACER — the federal court’s browser-based system that allows users to file or view public files anytime and anywhere — that is most likely still years away.

For starters, only a few counties have begun allowing criminal case documents to be filed digitally.

“We are slow-walking criminal e-filings,” Meis said, citing a variety of concerns from prosecutors, public defenders and others who worry about crime victim or other sensitive information becoming available to anyone. Similar issues exist with civil filings, which is why the state is still formulating a policy for remote access to all types of cases.

“The more pressing and complicated issue is the concept of public records versus private information,” Meis said. “In court files we have what we call a practical obscurity. You could go in and ask for them and look at them, but how many people are going to ask for them?”

“It’s easier if you can look at documents on your computer.”

There have been cases where people use personal information like Social Security numbers from online court documents for identity theft, including two people who were charged in Alabama using the same e-filing system Cook County now uses. Brown said the responsibility for redacting those sensitive details falls on attorneys.

Cook County will be far from paperless even after the transition. Brown said she expects even after e-filing becomes mandatory for clerks to still print out documents for judges, who have said the terminals in their courtroom for viewing electronic records are difficult to read documents on.

And it will remain the only large metropolitan court system in the nation where carbon paper is still widely found. Judges and attorneys still prefer to use it, but Brown hopes to eventually change the courthouse culture.

“I’m encouraged by how far we’ve come,” she said.

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke

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