The pandemic forced countless public bodies from town meetings to legislative committees to school committees to quickly and unexpectedly enter the digital age. The Massachusetts judiciary, which traces its roots back to 1692, was no exception.
“One of the things that we found during the pandemic is people don’t necessarily have to come in in order to be served by the court system,” Chief Justice Kimberly Budd of the Supreme Judicial Court told a legislative committee — via Zoom, of course — earlier this spring.
Imagine a system where no one has to miss a day of work or hire a baby sitter to “appear” in court.
Creating that kind of system on the fly in an emergency is one thing, but making technology work all day, every day, for the thousands of litigants, lawyers, judges, and for the public seeking access to proceedings and to documents in 95 courthouses is quite another. That will require replacing an antiquated patchwork of a system with one that offers the same range of public access whether the court is in Boston or the Berkshires.
To do that, judicial officials will need legislative approval of a $164 million bond bill, originally proposed but ignored during the 2019-20 session. The bill has been languishing in the House Ways and Means Committee since April 7, with the clock ticking down on a session due to end formal proceedings on July 31.
The lion’s share of the funds, $94 million, would go for developing those fully digital courthouses and courtrooms, including “access to justice portals” and a means to allow for remote video interpreters — a critical element for a court system that last year had to handle 100,000 requests for assistance in 95 different languages, according to Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke of the Trial Court.
Other funds are designated for digital security systems and expanding bandwidth capacity in all courthouses. Zoom hearings have taxed existing systems, and adding bandwidth “means judges will be able to conduct proceedings virtually without worrying about disruption to the video feed while a witness is midsentence or while a judge is issuing a decision,” Locke testified.
The court system’s chief information officer, Steven Duncan, also described a records system that is “really e-collecting, not e-filing, because we have to go back to paper once we’ve actually got that filing in.
“What we’re trying to get to is a true e-file where it’s e-everything,” Duncan added. “Things come in electronically or come in on paper, we turn that into an electronic filing, and then throughout the life of that case, from the clerk to the docket to the judge being able to review the materials, its stays electronically and doesn’t have to be printed out.”
It was an astonishing admission more than two decades into the 21st century.
The “new” system Duncan described is very much like the federal PACER (Public Access to Electronic Records) system — which went online in 2001 and is in the process of another update. It currently provides access to about 1 billion documents spread over 200 courthouses nationwide. Yes, it does charge modest fees for some documents (and some rather substantial ones for trial transcripts), but even that issue is being revisited.
Federal courts, however, don’t generally deal with the variety of issues state courts handle — adoptions, divorces, care and protection orders, juvenile court proceedings — that may require additional privacy protections.
But the Massachusetts court system has a long and sorry history not simply of being behind the technology curve — in this veritable technology mecca — but also of just getting it wrong. A 2015 Globe story described a system funded through a $75 million bond issue (plus millions of dollars more taken from the court system’s operating budget) that took nearly two decades to construct and eventually offered only the hodge-podge of a system Duncan recently described.
The system in place today, the records that are available online, is at best quirky — varying from one court to another — some of it subject to the whim of the appointed (for life) clerk-magistrate of that court. These are, let’s not forget, public records.
But efforts that would make the system user-friendly for, say, journalists, often run smack into the court system’s obsession with thwarting data harvesters looking to make a buck off criminal records searches. In fact, the Trial Court’s welcome page notes, “Access to the Massachusetts eAccess site by a site data harvester or any similar software intended to discover and extract data from a website through automated, repetitive querying for the purpose of collecting such data is expressly prohibited.”
Technology has always been a double-edged sword, but the court officials who will ultimately determine how the next-generation system operates should tilt those scales of justice in favor of transparency.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is not the disruption courts wanted, but it is the disruption courts needed,” the National Center for State Courts said in its report, “Guiding Principles for Post-Pandemic Court Technology.” It provided a chance, the report noted, “to re-imagine and embrace new ways of operating and to transform courts into a more accessible, transparent, and user-friendly branch of government. Institutional inertia should not end this transformation once the pandemic passes.”
The pending court bond bill is essential to that kind of transformation, but money alone can’t assure a truly transparent system. Only its judicial overseers can and must do that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.