Cool Conference

Recent technology conference shows courts how to be more efficient today and provides glimpses of possible tomorrows.

by / December 8, 2005
More than 2,400 attendees from all 50 states and 122 international delegates representing 24 countries attended the National Center for State Courts' Ninth Court Technology Conference (CTC9), held in mid-September in Seattle.

"A couple of vendor solutions we looked at here were very interesting -- particularly warrants and the electronic passing of details," said David Morris, Information Services manager of the Scottish Court Service, a national Justice Department agency managing the performance of the courts in Scotland, who reports to the First Minister of Scotland. "The vendor can offer it as a kind of service," said Morris. "The minister will appreciate something that's already there. We can use it or develop our own."

Morris' colleague, Robert Jenkins, is the deputy IS manager, and Jenkins said he's investigating new case management system applications, especially e-filing and how U.S. courts are advancing e-filing and making themselves more efficient

"We have case management for civil and criminal cases," Jenkins said. "In guardianship cases, we have had electronic case filing since 2001. All documents are submitted in paper and scanned, creating a digital image. The problem is the electronic signature. It is nice to know that this can be overcome."

Among the broad themes of CTC9 was the efficient and effective handling of information, the lifeblood of the court system. It's gathered, stored, analyzed and shared. Many of the presentations and vendor displays at the conference focused on ways to maintain and enhance the flow of information throughout the courts, and the entire justice system.

Storing information within the court system is moving from traditional paper to electronic images and data, and two CTC9 presenters on the topic of receiving and storing documents electronically had similar programs with a couple of major differences.

King County, Wash., developed its system locally and maintains control of the documents. Colorado created its through a public/private partnership with LexisNexis, and documents are stored by the company with online retrieval capability for all users.

Information Overload
How the courts gather and use information was also covered through presentations on e-discovery, real-time criminal history and a program that provides judges with information on how various sentencing options affected offender adjustment and rehabilitation.

One specific CTC9 session dealt with sharing information and processes with the public called "Leveraging Public Internet Connectivity."

"The Web can also serve the courts by providing information that is in demand by litigants and the public -- such as daily calendars, case data and jury information," said Tom Clarke, the National Center for State Courts' (NCSC) CIO and vice president of research. "Thurston County [in Washington state], for instance, offers the ability to pay fines and participate in online mediation. Technology can also make it easier and cheaper to share data."

This presents a challenge because though court records fall in the realm of public information, they often contain private data.

"Physical security and cyber-security are becoming more important issues, partly because of the fear of identify theft," Clarke said on the struggle for balance between access and privacy. "We are just starting to have enough states that have access rules to have lessons learned. The sky is not falling. People have made decisions across a wide spectrum of rules, and no one had experienced a disaster."

A presentation on data regulation and access management tackled this issue.

"The biggest procedural problem is the redaction of privacy data from court records that are otherwise publicly available," Clarke continued. "Court clerks don't want to incur the labor costs of redaction, but current software is not entirely up to automated redaction yet."

Securing the Data
How to keep information, cyber and otherwise, safe was discussed in sessions about disaster preparedness, including a session presented by members of the Florida courts. Cyber-security was covered in the session "How Hackers Get Into Computer Systems and What You Can Do to Stop Them."

The final piece of the discussion was the sharing of information within the courts and the justice system as a whole. The Global Justice XML Data Model (GJXDM) is being put forth as the standard wraparound language in which all states and localities will develop their electronic data projects. There is support to any entity attempting to develop within the standard, available at the GJXDM Knowledge Base and Help Desk .

The NCSC provides some of the help desk assistance at the second tier level, which involves specific domain problems. Tom Carlson, NCSC Internet and communications specialist, is one of the domain experts.

"GJXDM allows agencies to use a common language without having to individually negotiate how to do so," Carlson said of the value in using GJXDM. "It also works within and between counties, states and countries -- or even within a particular court."

Carlson taught a session on GJXDM titled "Technology Level Discussion GJXDM." Carlson is also the creator of a program called Wayfarer, which helps the average person understand the relationships between the various elements within the database.

"There is a lot of inheritance within GJXDM -- one element can contain other elements and it depends upon the element which other elements it can contain," Carlson explained. "For instance, a general activity element can contain an activity date. Citation derives from activity and inherits and activity date. Wayfarer will convert large XML schema and make it into a relational database, which will help a person understand how the elements relate. It is an exploration tool to help someone learn about the model. You can look up things; find the right element and where it sits in the vast hierarchy."

In his session, Carlson illustrated element attributes and relations through the use of two red hats, indicating two elements that shared some things, but not others. More information on the Wayfarer program can be found here.

Managing Cases
Case management is another topic covered at CTC9.

"The last couple of years, performance measures have become a major issue," Clarke said. "Funding sources want them [the courts] to justify their funding."

One case management solution presented was a program called LOVISA, currently used in the Norwegian District Courts and Courts of Appeal. Another session presented CourTools, a model set of court performance measurement systems offered by the NCSC.

As soon a people try to improve performance, they find that they can't economically collect the data," Clarke said. "CourTools provides a cheap and repeatable way."

A topic not directly related to efficiency, but still of great interest was court security. Presentations and vendor products touched upon both physical and cyber-security.

"I hope the participants have a broader sense of how technology can improve and support court processes -- that they have identified a network of peers that can provide feedback and suggestions," said Mary McQueen, president of the NCSC. "I hope they see technological innovations as opportunities and embrace their role as executive sponsors in technology projects -- that they don't fear technology projects or feel they need NASA-like skills to manage court technology projects."

More information on CTC9, including streaming video of presentations and highlights may be found at here.
Alison Sonntag Special to Government Technology