Pennsylvania Courts Climb Into the World Wide Web

One of the oldest courts in the country tries out one of the newest ways to get information to the public

by / August 31, 1995 0
Sept 95 Level of Govt: State, Local Function: Court administration Problem/situation: Pennsylvania courts need to coordinate operations and increase public access to court information, without decimating the budget

Solution: Develop a World Wide Web page on the Internet

Jurisdiction: Pennsylvania

Vendors: General Atomics Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., National Center for Supercomputing, IBM, NetManage Corp., MKS Contacts: Tom Darr and John Davenport at the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (717/795-2026); Jim McMillan at the National Center for State Courts (202/253-2000) By James Evans Contributing Editor You might not expect the oldest court in the United States to face this quandary: how to stay young

Young in this case means staying current with technology to enhance court operations. The Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) wanted to know how to do it. Age tends to set people and organizations in their comfortable ways and less willing to embrace change. Certainly that's what you might anticipate from a court system established in 1722 - hidebound, traditional and suspicious of newfangled methods

Not in Pennsylvania. The court system has 273 years under its belt, and if there's one note of advice court administrators have passed down through the generations: you either keep up with the times or wilt. Administrators in Pennsylvania weren't content merely to stay abreast of developments. The most elderly court in the land had a duty to lead, and the path led right to the Internet, specifically to the World Wide Web

In April the AOPC became one of the first state court systems to have a presence on the Internet, a global computer network with an estimated 30 million users. The newest and hottest star of the show - the Web - has rapidly dominated the growth of the Internet since its appearance in 1990 because of its ability to display text, sound, color graphics and video

Pennsylvania's Web page is located at:

"It solves an enormous number of problems," said Tom Darr, director of Administration and Communications at the AOPC. "There's so much information in electronic form that it was becoming a burden to make that information available to county and state agencies. That information also is of interest to public and private groups." Like numerous other courts - principally federal appeals, district and bankruptcy courts - Pennsylvania had set up an electronic bulletin board system in late 1992 that allowed court officials and other people to call a telephone number and access judicial information with their computers. But the number of callers was limited by the number of modems on the system. As more courts joined the effort and more people heard about the court bulletin board, the AOPC had to buy more and more modems to accommodate the demand. It was an expensive cycle, especially in a time of budget reductions

"All those problems go away on the Internet," said Darr. "A major information sharing problem has always been to have one place to post information so it can be readily searched. It's a win-win situation. We win by getting the information out easily, and the public wins by getting the information smoothly without delay." By information, Darr means both internal operations of 550 statewide courts of all variety and the networking of 67 trial courts statewide, involving 353 judges. In addition, Darr and his colleagues wanted to improve public access to judicial material including court calendars, statistical data about the Pennsylvania justice system, news announcements and legislative testimony. While actual decisions still aren't available, the state Supreme Court and lower appellate courts are expected to post opinions online soon

To make official and public access efficient and cost-effective, the AOPC Director of Data Processing, John Davenport, turned to the Web. Hisfirst concern was whether to buy additional computer equipment to develop and support their own Web server, or merely turn to a commercial Web provider

He chose the latter, going with the California Education Research Foundation, a non-profit entity sponsored by General Atomics Corp. of San Diego, Calif. The foundation operates CERFnet and the AOPC leases space on CERFnet's computers for $250 a month

"It's almost nothing," said Davenport. "There was no equipment needed beyond our existing local area network. It would have cost us more to get a T1 line [the digital communications link] than to sign up with CERFnet

There were lots of security concerns," he said, adding that the AOPC Web page solved those potentially thorny problems by using read-only Web servers, which means people accessing the site can view, print or download the data, but can't alter it

Accessing the page with Web browser software - like Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netscape Navigator, National Center for Supercomputing's Mosaic, IBM's Explorer, NetManage Corp.'s Internet Chameleon Netsurfer, MKS Internet Anywhere and a host of other programs - allows users to choose from a list of material, including AOPC organization, function and departmental data, Supreme Court calendar, district justice court offices and statistics, press releases, court administration information, public access policy and procedures, and employment opportunities. Organizations that require large and regular downloads of data receive passwords to enter restricted areas, and are charged a $250 setup fee and a monthly rate based on processing time. Monthly fees average $30-$50

"In the short to midterm, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will be posting synopsis of opinions, and then opinions will appear," said Davenport. "The justices seem very comfortable with computerization, but the judicial system is quite far behind other branches of government in having any real information available." Jim McMillan, director of the Court Technology Laboratory at the National Center for State Courts, said he monitored and encouraged Pennsylvania's push to get on the Internet, noting that several courts now offer information or opinions through the Web. They include the Florida Office of the State Courts (, the Harris County District Courts in Texas (, Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts in Arizona ( and the Alaska Supreme Court (

"More and more courts will be doing this," said McMillan. "Courts have had electronic bulletin boards for a number of years, but the Internet is the next step. They're able to have a nicer presentation of information. With all the commercial services making the Web available, we will have a much wider audience to receive information about cases. All the public information should be available to the public

"The key is public service," he said. "Courts are looking to expand their public service, to the bar and the general public. They want to clarify what is happening in the legal system. There's a great push in the entire judiciary to become more public-service oriented, and the Internet is one manifestation of that. Some jurisdictions are using 800-telephone numbers, and others are using kiosks. We'll absolutely be seeing a lot more of all of that," he said, adding that the National Center for State Courts received a grant from the federally sponsored State Justice Institute to produce a book to instruct courts how to place material on the Internet

The book is due next spring

Darr said the AOPC's bulletin board would continue to function until most users made the migration to the Web site by the end of the year. "There's no other choice from a communications perspective than to proceed down this road because the demands for information are so great," he said. "Not to use this vehicle means we won't fulfill those demands any time soon."