West Virginia Moves County Courts Toward Digital Future

The transformational effort is the result of a recent push to digitally save and archive all of the state’s court records, starting with present cases -- but eventually going back over 150 years of legal history.

by Andrew Brown, The Charleston Gazette / May 4, 2015

(TNS) -- The endeavor is one part government efficiency and one part historical preservation.

Since 2013, West Virginia Supreme Court employee Matt Arrowood has been assigned to move the state’s antiquated county court system toward its digital future, where paper copies are a 20th-century notion and lawsuits can be filed with a click of a mouse.

Even as he has suffered through the long drives from courthouse to courthouse, the dark, dank basements of old jails and the company of the snake that took up residence in some of the court records he was saving, Arrowood has successfully moved the state’s 55 county courts one step closer to the computerized era.

In less than two years, Arrowood has brought every county in the state up to speed on scanning and digitally saving new court records, and within the past four months, he’s overseen the adoption of the state’s first e-filing systems in two counties, where lawyers can file motions directly from their computers to the state’s electronic system.

The transformational effort is the result of a recent push by the West Virginia Supreme Court, led by Justice Brent Benjamin, to digitally save and archive all of the state’s court records, starting with present cases but eventually going back over 150 years of legal history.

Officials hope to modernize the West Virginia court system, creating a website where paying customers can search for court cases from throughout the state, sorting by date, county, keyword, legal party and more.

“It’s a huge step,” said former Marion County circuit clerk Barbara Core, public liaison for Online Information Services, the company helping the state in their digital conversion. “It’s a landmark deal to have every county scanning.”

But while the move promises to save money, time, space and the backs of circuit court clerks, who lug boxes of documents to and from storage, it also provides a chance for historical court documents to be preserved.

As some counties scan documents going back to the early 1900s, the aging paper versions are freed up to be preserved in the state archives, and guaranteed to exist for future generations in electronic format.

“They reflect our society. They reflect our government activities,” said Joe Geiger, director of Archives and History at the state Division of Culture and History, referring to the court records. “I think it is the government’s responsibility to preserve those records for the public.”

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Some county clerk’s offices were scanning documents before 2013, but Arrowood said many smaller counties were operating on the same paper-only system that they had relied on since the 1800s.

But as space in county record rooms began to fill up, Arrowood said, something needed to be done to save space and make court records more accessible.

“It just took someone to say, ‘Let’s do this,’” he said.

When Arrowood began, only 20 counties in the state had any digital records. Two years later, every new court case in the state is being saved on the state’s computer system.

The next step is to have every county filing motions electronically, something only two counties have accomplished thus far.

Marion County was the first to adopt the e-filing system in December of last year, and Jefferson County followed a few weeks ago.

In those counties, legal motions no longer need to change hands between attorneys, circuit clerks, their staff and a judge before they can be put into record. If adopted statewide, lawyers will be able to upload their documents straight into the courts’ system, where clerks, judges and other lawyers party to the case will be able to access the records at any hour of the day.

“The thing with e-filing and what’s important about that is that it speeds up the legal process,” said Core, who has worked to make sure the system works for all of the involved parties. “This way, its done in a matter of minutes.”

Judges will be able review their dockets from home and sign orders using a digital signature.

“We have seen a reduction in the clerk’s office in the amount of time it takes to process these cases,” Core said.

At the same time, she said, the new system should save money, just by eliminating the paper and filing folders needed to maintain the court records.

“Imagine the cost savings to these counties,” Core said “We have seen it in Marion County already.”

She said the system is getting positive reviews, not only from court clerks and attorneys, but also from state and federal agencies. Both the FBI and the West Virginia Bureau of Child Support Enforcement, which handles child support cases, have complimented state officials on the project, telling them how much easier the system could make their jobs.

“Nobody realizes how many agencies the court system works with on a daily basis,” Core said.

In Jefferson County, Circuit Clerk Laura Storm said the rollout of the program has been extremely successful.

Storm, who was one of the circuit clerks that traveled to Alabama to review that state’s online court system, said the biggest change for her is the amount of traffic in and out of the clerks office that the system eliminates.

“This saves travel time,” Storm said. “It is going to save attorneys and self-proclaimed litigants a lot of money.”

Arrowood said the price of a subscription to the website has not been determined yet, but the cost of the system would be placed on users, not the taxpayers.

While Storm said the digital transition could be a little more difficult for lawyers and state officials who are not as familiar with computer technology, she said once they get acclimated, it will make everyone’s job easier.

“Once they learn what to do, I know they are going to embrace it,” Storm said.

That is where Arrowood comes in. He said his primary role is to educate the clerks, lawyers and judges who will be utilizing the system every day.

“It’s scary, but its something that has to happen,” Arrowood said.

While the scanning of court documents serves the practical purpose of improving the state’s legal system, it is simultaneously saving some records from the damaging effects of time and what can be less-than-ideal conditions in county record rooms.

“If you have digital copy here there and everywhere, it is still out there,” said David Stover, the Wyoming County circuit clerk.

Just last year, Stover gave a dramatic example of what can happen if the records are not properly preserved. At an annual conference for the state’s circuit clerks, Stover brought an old leather-bound book of county records that had been crusted over with mold and mildew, the pages stuck together by moisture.

“You could hardly open it,” he said.

It was only after he got to the meeting that he found out that the book didn’t contain court records but old Wyoming County sheriff’s documents, but the lesson hit home just the same.

“I mean, where do you store stuff? It’s like, where do you bury people?” Stover said. “Eventually you run out of room.”

With many of the state’s historical court records being stored in the basements of courthouses and old county jails -- often lined with sandstone walls -- the possibility of those records being destroyed forever is a real possibility.

“I have files in the basement of the main courthouse,” Stover said. “More than half the counties are in similar situations. It’s overwhelming.”

But as more circuit clerk staffs begin the demanding task of scanning decades worth of records, they continue to save a portion of state history that can often be overlooked.

Arrowood said he tries to make that task achievable for some of the smaller counties by giving them smaller goals to copy five years of civil motions or 5 years of criminal cases.

“We try to be patient with them,” Arrowood said. “It’s a long term project, but we have a good start.”

After the records are digitized, county officials can either continue to house the paper copies or they can send them somewhere else to be stored.

That in turn, has some state officials hopeful that the paper copies of those records will be shipped to the state archives or better storage locations where they can be preserved.

“I want the clerks to know that if their game plan is to digitize these records and dispose of them, we want them,” said Geiger, who manages the state archive in Charleston.

Geiger said he knows that some circuit clerks aren’t going to give up their historical records because of the significance they hold for the county. In those cases, Geiger said he is more than happy to have the records remain in the counties they originated in as long as they are protected.

“Some have the over-my-dead-body mentality,” Geiger said. “And that is great. They are very much aware of the historical value.”

But for the clerks who plan to move the records, Geiger said he plans to ask them to consider sending them to the state archive.

“We are equipped to handle those types of records and maintain them over the long term,” Geiger said.

In recent years, Geiger said the state archives, which is equipped with climate controlled rooms and professionals trained in document preservation, have taken in some court documents from numerous counties in the state.

While Geiger said he was excited about what electronic recordkeeping offers, he said the state Division of Culture and History is much more interested in preserving the original copies.

“We’re more concerned about preserving records permanently,” said Geiger. “We like to preserve the original historical version.”

Some of the court records that the Geiger has been asked to preserve involve some of the state’s most historical and culturally relavent events.

There is the Jackson County case file involving the last man to be sent to the gallows in West Virginia; the court records about the John Brown trial in Jefferson County; the Mingo County court documents from the cases that followed the Matewan Massacre, the infamous battle between coal miners and Baldwin-Felts detectives; and the criminal case of serial killer Harry Powers, the Blue Beard of Quiet Dell, whose story prompted the book and movie “The Night of the Hunter.”

“There is something special about holding those original materials in your hand instead of viewing it on a computer screen,” Geiger said. “The information stays the same but there is something about holding that document and knowing this is it.”

©2015 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.