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For Courts, Tech Isn’t Just a Tool — It’s a Message

State courts’ IT choices can raise or lower barriers to accessing the justice and impacts whether the public sees it as fairly distributed. Experts discussed what the path to a more equitable process looks like during a recent conference.

Keith Porcaro stands behind the eCourts podium and gestures as he talks.
Keith Porcaro, director of Duke Law School's Digital Governance Design Studio, speaks as part of an eCourts 2022 panel on “Digital Services Contracting and Technology Transitions.”
Jule Pattison-Gordon
State courts’ slim budgets have constrained their technology use. But for some, federal grants and other funding sources, as well as experimentation with lower cost off-the-shelf technologies, are making IT projects more attainable, said several speakers during this week’s National Center for State Courts (NCSC) eCourts conference.

Kentucky Court of Justice CIO Charles Byers said federal funds made it possible to progress on a long-desired revamp of the court’s court management system. Meanwhile Scott Schlegel — judge for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana’s 24th Judicial District Court — explained how he adopted digital calendars and other tools to streamline court workflows.

Technology choices can improve internal processes and create the kinds of convenient experiences that build trust with the public, said speakers during several panels.

But courts also must navigate plenty of potential minefields, including creating the right vendor partnerships, avoiding taking on more IT projects than they truly can manage and designing an inclusive user experience.

Public opinion of courts’ fairness is shaped in part by how smooth, accessible and secure their interactions with the court are — in both the physical and digital realms.

“Your choices on technology and data can frame how people view the court,” said Keith Porcaro, director of Duke Law School's Digital Governance Design Studio. “Your choices can frame how people trust the court, and even how much they believe that a court is a place for them to go and find justice.”

INCLUSIVE DESIGN: WHO NEEDS YOU MOST?


Simple tools can have big impacts. Schlegel said adopting a digital calendar let him schedule lawyers and litigants for specific times — rather than forcing everyone to show up at 9 a.m. and wait. That spared the courthouse from managing large crowds and gave constituents back time in their day.

Using the calendar to automatically text and email schedule reminders also reduced failures to appear by defendants who simply forgot their dates. One inspiration behind that effort? Dentists.

“I’ve never missed a dentist appointment … they text you relentlessly,” Schlegel said.

Courts can use technology to put constituents on a level playing field, Porcaro said. Their communications channel and website design choices can make critical information easily available to anyone — not just those who can afford lawyers to navigate the system for them. For example, lawyers might text hearing date reminders to their clients; but if courts start offering such a service, that ensures all parties receive this support, regardless of who they’ve hired.
Keith Porcaro stands behind a podium, which displays the words “eCourts 2022 Las Vegas NCSC.”
Keith Porcaro
Jule Pattison-Gordon
“[One] question you should be asking is, what power dynamics are you creating [with your tech adoptions]?” Porcaro said. “… Projects change the ecosystem around the court and teach you new things. And you may just need to make small tweaks to your court policies to mitigate unexpected harms.”

Courts should design their websites around the needs of those most dependent on these tools for guidance.

“Think, who’s really impacted by a bad website?” Porcaro said.” Lawyers might care a little … [but] the people who will care are the people who have to come to court, who just got a court summons or who don’t have a lawyer and are trying to figure out what to do.”

Webpages should display information that those parties need right at the top, where it’s easy to find. To guide that effort, courts can turn to case data and web analytics. These will help them understand which cases usually involve first-time participants and self-represented litigants, as well as what information users most often look for on the sites, he said.

A people-centered approach isn’t just important during the design and launch phases. Courts also must consider how eventual transitions away from a solution will impact users such as “people who rely on it in order to advance their case, access the court or maintain their livelihood,” recommend NCSC and data and technology governance consulting firm Small Scale Consulting, in a joint resource for procurement officers. Procurement teams should plan for navigating such later-stage challenges before signing the initial contracts.

WORKING WITH VENDORS: BALANCING PUBLIC AND PRIVATE


Courts often rely on vendors for technologies, but turning to private companies also raises concerns, said Iria Giuffrida, professor of the practice of law at William & Mary Law School, during a panel on smart cities.

“There’s great anxiety about potentially the private sector, sort of penetrating the public sector and public services,” Giuffrida said. “The interests are not always aligned.”

Iria Giuffrida, seated at a table on stage, gestures. Marcus Reinkensmeyer and Nathan Hall, seated at a separate table, look on.
Dr. Iria Giuffrida, Professor of the Practice of Law at William & Mary Law School, discusses concerns around smart city technology. Phoenix, Ariz.’s deputy director for the Administrative Office of the Courts Marcus Reinkensmeyer (center) and Architect and NCSC Senior Court Consultant Nathan Hall (left) join her for a panel on “Impacts of Environmental Change.”
Jule Pattison-Gordon
Governments adopting technologies must address concerns over how private partners might use the public’s data and whether commercial products will truly serve all constituents equally or create access barriers to some, she said.

The NCSC-Small Scale resource advises procurement officers to consider a number of questions before signing a contract. Those include the purposes for which vendors may use client data, the timeline for vendors to delete data once the courts stop using their solutions, and the kinds of supports vendors will offer for winding down use of the solution.

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB?


Some judges, like Schlegel, praised commercial-off-the-shelf products for their affordability and simplicity. Judges can use such low-code and no-code tools to chip away at inconveniences, including the creation of court websites that make it easy for residents to find judges’ contact information and the use of Slack to coordinate with multiple agencies and parties about cases.

“Any judge or court administrator can improve the justice system for under $1,000 a year,” Schlegel said.

But even budget-minded courts should shell out for licenses, Schlegel added. Government cannot afford the security risk of freemium products, and he said he turns to FedRAMP to identify vetted tools.
Scott Schlegel gestures broadly as he stands on stage before an audience.
Scott Schlegel, judge for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana’s 24th Judicial District Court, explains how he used off-the-shelf software to streamline workflows at his court ,during his panel, "Using Low/No-Code TEch to Improve Workflows."
Jule Pattison-Gordon

Not everyone is a fan of adopting an array of low-code and no-code tools, however. During an earlier panel, Nebraska Judicial Branch CIO Chad Cornelius promoted enterprise-wide solutions instead as a more sustainable, cohesive alternative.

“Let’s also not forget about the information security risk created by siloed and disconnected commercial solutions,” Cornelius said. “Instead, let’s focus on enterprise solutions with an incremental delivery, incremental value approach and solutions that are sustainable and elastic.”

He said low-code and no-code tools often have limited capabilities and can be difficult to integrate with other systems, raising security concerns. (Schlegel, meanwhile, said most products he uses have open APIs to enable integrations.)

In other cases, courts’ needs are complex enough to require custom offerings.

Kentucky, for example, captures audiovisual recordings as its official court record. The commercial videoconferencing tools that proliferated during the pandemic didn’t connect with that existing court AV system, however, preventing it from automatically collecting recordings — and increasing the risks that virtual hearings weren’t being entered into the official record, said state Court of Justice CIO Byers. Ultimately, the Kentucky court had to meet with three technology companies to design the solution needed.

Byers said there’s arguments for both custom and off-the-shelf solutions and urged courts to actively consider both options.

WHEN TO SAY NO TO MONEY


States courts have long struggled with tight budgets, but that picture changed in jurisdictions like Kentucky as federal pandemic relief funds arrived.

Byers’ court initially leapt at the opportunities to apply for funds. The court secured final-stage funding for a long-desired technology project, but other project proposals were developed rapidly as teams scrambled to submit funding requests on tight deadlines.

Charles Byers gestures as he talks. He's seated on stage at a table, next to Chad Cornelius who looks at him attentively.
Kentucky Court of Justice CIO Charles Byers (left) and Nebraska Judicial Branch CIO Chad Cornelius (right) discuss funding and procurement during their panel, "Funding Everywhere and Not A Drop of Patience."
Jule Pattison-Gordon
To help accommodate the influx of projects, Kentucky started training other staff on project management fundamentals. But it still became clear that staff could only take on so much.

That reality check also needs to be communicated to leadership. Too often, policy changes add hurdles by creating new high-priority projects that interrupt work on completing earlier priorities, Byers said.

“When you have more work than you can do, you should not take on any more work,” Byers said. “… Just last week I had the opportunity to pick up $300,000 easily. And my budget director said, ‘It’s not worth it.’ And it hurt my heart, but I agreed with her.”
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.