Judges at the federal and state level may generate more headlines, but much of day-to-day adjudication of civil and criminal matters happens lower down the judicial food chain, in Circuit Courts in individual counties.
Though each state is different, the lower Circuit Courts are generally the “trial courts” where most lawsuits originate, and where citizens not involved in small claims or traffic court generally encounter the justice system. An Associate Circuit Court judge presides over a wide variety of cases (property disputes, tax issues, probate matters, divorce and custody hearings, mortgage foreclosures, etc.) as well as original-jurisdiction criminal matters involving misdemeanors, property crimes, and — if asked to — even felony matters.
In an increasingly digital society, however, what disturbs her most about the court’s slow adoption of digital technology is that it inhibits the public’s access to the processes of the court, and hence fair justice.
Because of the complexity and variety of cases they adjudicate, and their place in the budgetary hierarchy, lower circuit courts in many states also house the judges who are least likely to have up-to-date technology that could make their courtrooms more efficient and responsive. While the world around them is quickly adopting digital technology almost everywhere, many Circuit Courts are still paper-based operations that have yet to move very far into the digital age.
Paper vs. Progress
For associate judges — particularly younger ones — this digital sluggishness can be frustrating.
Because they adjudicate a wide variety of cases in many different areas of the law, they must digest a great deal of information quickly, a process that slows down significantly when judges must spend time sifting through information they don’t need.
One Associate Circuit Court judge in the Midwest (who prefers not be named) says she often gets slowed down by the sheer volume of paper she encounters. “For some of the cases I hear, I might get 20 volumes of paper. But the operative complaint might be in volume three, or it might be in volume seven, and I have to find it.”
The district in which she works is currently implementing a new e-filing system, she says, which will help solve some of the courts immediate issues. Still, the day-to-day reliance on paper creates a great deal of judicial drag. “I have no problem looking at briefs online,” she says. “I’d love to be able to go to drop-down menu and check a citation right in the document, rather than do a separate search in Westlaw.” Keeping track of scheduling orders, trial dates, cutoff dates, and various other administrative minutiae is another task she’d prefer a computer to do.
In an increasingly digital society, however, what disturbs her most about the court’s slow adoption of digital technology is that it inhibits the public’s access to the processes of the court, and hence fair justice. “In my court, I have a lot of people who elect to represent themselves, and it’s important for them to have access to the information they need — a log-in number for the e-file, for instance.” Justice is not served if self-represented people don’t have the same access as everyone else. Furthermore, she says, “They expect it, and don’t understand when they can’t have it.”
Justice vs. Speed
Another issue is the expeditious administration of justice. At the county Circuit Court level, when orders for protection are issued, it can take several hours for paper copies of an order to be distributed to law enforcement, and in some cases the petitioner must present a written order to law enforcement themselves. “It is very important to distribute orders for protection quickly,” the judge says. “It would be great to push those through electronically.”
Getting some sort of notification of cases that have fallen through the cracks — where there has been no activity for three months, for example — is also on her wish list of capabilities. As is some way of knowing how many cases she’s tried, how many she’s disposed, what her decision-making looks like in the aggregate — none of which she currently knows, or has the capability to find out.
Like many judges, this one feels the tension between escalating caseloads inside the courtroom and the public’s growing expectation for speed in all aspects of life. Still, she herself is not ready to go to an all-digital courtroom. There is value in a paper trail, she says — even in the systemic friction it produces — and her own work process relies on paper, to some extent.
“I still mark up briefs on paper, and there is something psychological that happens when you do it manually,” she says. “It helps your memory.” It’s the routine, day-to-day mechanics of the courtroom that would benefit most from a more technologically efficient system, she says: “I came from federal court, and they’ve been using e-filing for 20 years. It’s embarrassing how far behind we are, but we’re getting there.”