Judges enveloped by mountains of paper, clerks pushing carts piled high with files and people traveling to the courthouse just to look at documents — all could become obsolete in Maryland, as the judiciary moves toward an electronic courts system.
"Right now, you go to court and you say, 'Can I see the file?' [Soon] there won't be a file," said District Court Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn, who heads the e-court advisory committee. Instead, people will be able to view a virtual file online.
Nationwide, courts are shedding their historic reliance on paper and moving to e-court systems, said James E. McMillan, an e-courts consultant for the National Center for State Courts.
None has completely abandoned paper, and Maryland will fall into line with the nationwide trend. Plans call for keeping records electronically, doing business electronically and using paper only when it's requested. But lawyers and individuals still will be able to file paper and clerks will digitize the documents.
"If you look at what's going on in society, we're tweeting, we're shopping, we're dating — we're doing everything — online," Clyburn said. "I think the courts are five to 10 years behind the rest of society."
A request for proposals to create the bulk of the system went out last week. Officials said if all goes smoothly, a contract can be finalized within a year, and a pilot program will be started in Anne Arundel County in 2012.
When the network is completed, probably around 2015, all Maryland courts — district, circuit and the two appeals courts — will be in a single network, and court-related agencies will be linking to it.
The exact cost of converting to an electronic system is unknown. Clyburn said that based on costs in other states, the contract for much of the system is expected to run between $40 million and $75 million. The state has already put more than $20 million toward it.
In all states, "the biggest problem is trying to figure out how to pay for it," McMillan, the e-courts consultant, said.
Maryland will charge people to electronically file documents and print them from remote sites in an effort to recoup some costs. The current 50-cents-a-page fee for copies of court papers may be the fee for electronic copies as well. In addition to whatever lawyers pay the company of their choosing for e-filing and other services, the state will charge an e-filing fee — about $6 likely will be recommended.
Multiple vendors will funnel documents to the courts, avoiding concerns that have arisen elsewhere that a single company has preferential access to all court records, and the state plans to retain control over court material.
The new system is likely to bring efficiencies to the court system, allowing it to handle more cases without adding resources, said State Court Administrator Frank V. Broccolina. If cases can move faster, litigants save money.
"What dollar amount do you put on that — cops being able to serve warrants quicker? If one cop is alerted that there is a warrant out for a person before they walk into that house on a call, what dollar value do you put on that?" he said.
Plans call for free viewing of Maryland court documents online, which officials say will allow for more court access, and courthouses will have public terminals available for document viewing. Privacy and other policies will need to be fleshed out, officials said.
Federal courts and many local courts have led the way in addressing privacy concerns, said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"There has been a recognition by the states that they do need to limit public access to some types of court information," he said. Information sealed in paper files, such as psychiatric reports and bank account details, can also be shielded electronically.
Clyburn said courts would continue to accept paper documents to accommodate individuals who have no attorney or no computer and anyone who prefers paper or who wants to skip e-filing fees.
The biggest benefit, Clyburn said, will be in the areas of public safety and speed.
"This is going to be able to consolidate everything. If I am a judge, I can look in the system and see it all," Clyburn said.
"There really hasn't been any opposition to it," said Dana Williams, a lawyer who heads the Maryland State Bar Association's liaison group on e-courts, noting that nearly all lawyers work on computers and many are used to the federal court's electronic system. The committee has been working with Clyburn, and its comments and comments from the public are expected to identify areas for policy changes over the coming year or so.
A pilot program probably will start in 2012 in Anne Arundel County, to work out glitches before connecting the rest of the state courts.
The county is home to all the court levels: district, circuit and the two appellate courts. The district and circuit courts are among the state's largest. The circuit court is one of the most modern. Its officials are familiar with e-filing because they considered trying it several years ago; they didn't because the rest of the system was paper-based.
Officials expect the statewide network to address the state courts' current hodgepodge of electronic operations, including some that are too antiquated to update.
"Currently, we have eight separate case management systems throughout the state, and those systems don't talk to each other," Clyburn said.
That has made tying other key systems — such as public safety and warrant service — into courts nearly impossible.
Existing programs show only basic information and are not updated in real time.
The state has been getting away from paper in other court-related ways: About 29 police departments issue e-citations, which has freed up a few of the clerks who used to type ticket information into state computers to do other work; Maryland land records went electronic a few years ago; and Baltimore City has had nearly a decade of successful e-filing in asbestos lawsuits.
Currently, Prince George's County courts are testing e-filing in landlord-tenant cases, an e-system for warrants across the state is nearing completion and the judiciary is looking into allowing scofflaws to pay fines online, Broccolina said.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of Louisiana court records in 2005. Closer to home, had court records been in the historic Prince George's County courthouse as its 2004 renovation neared completion, the records would have been lost in the fire that gutted the building.