Court transparency and accountability were among the concerns raised at Monday’s meeting with State Court Administrator Chad Schmucker along with counsel Anne Boomer.
MiCOG and other interested groups attended a 75 minute meeting set up by Flint private investigator Patrick Clawson to detail specific concerns with two proposed bills (HB 4064 and 4532), currently stalled in the House Judiciary Committee due to the efforts of several in the group.
The proposed bills would create a statewide e-filing system and establish an electronic pay wall of as yet unspecified fees for access by litigants and also members of the public. Though there is support for a statewide filing system, who would have access to it and the fees that could be charged dominated discussion.
Schmucker announced to the group at the start of the meeting that the fee language would be removed from the proposed bills. He found out quickly that did not resolve concerns about who, what, when and how much in fees would ultimately and inevitably be put in place, how they would be monitored and tracked to make the information transparent to Michigan’s citizens who may want to know.
Michael Buckles of the Michigan Creditors Association said the fees constituted a tax and explained that the judiciary does not have the constitutional authority to levy taxes.
Ideas were shared, but no promises were made by Schmucker.
When pressed on the actual cost of developing and implementing a statewide e-filing system and docket and case management systems, Schmucker could not provide any figures. That raised more concerns among participants that the e-filing bill was proposed with no idea of the cost.
SCAO counsel Anne Boomer said that one of the challenges in implementing the e-filing system is that several circuits have adopted, from various vendors, different document management systems. These courts, including Oakland and Wayne, are generating revenue and, according to Schmucker, may resist joining a unified system.
In a related issue, participants complained that various courts around the state charged widely different fees generating confusion among litigants and excessive charges. Participants cited the federal PACER system as more transparent and reasonably priced. How the revenues are spent is another issue.
Under further discussion, Schmucker said his office could not require audits by the various circuits on the amount of fees collected and how the revenue is being spent and SCAO did not have the staff to do it .
Members attending offered their assistance to Schmucker in revising the bills. He eventually promised to share revised language and proposals with the group for their input prior to the return of the legislature from summer recess. When group members tried to set a date for a follow-up meeting the end of July, however, Schmucker said the process would take much longer.
Schmucker was also asked about the lack of access to records that have been collected and managed by the Judicial Data Warehouse by members of the public, attorneys and others. Clawson said that other states allow free internet access to the data collected.
Concerns were also raised about the Supreme Court’s order last October that exempts administrative and financial records of the state’s courts from public inspection despite a state constitutional mandate that budgets and expenditures for all government entities in Michigan are public. The courts, at the federal and state level, have historically been the most transparent of the three branches of government. Michigan’s Supreme Court has issued several administrative orders and worked with legislators to propose bills that shroud the operations of the courts in this state from public scrutiny.
Another issue raised in the meeting was a SCAO order that video and audio transcripts of court proceedings are no longer available to the public. This was a particular concern to broadcasters. The order was in response to complaints of some judges that citizens had obtained DVRs, edited them and posted them on YouTube.
At the end of the meeting, additional concerns were raised about court secrecy including the proposed secret mental health courts, and the currently operating secret drug courts and veteran courts.
Other participants at the meeting included the Michigan Court Officers Association, the Michigan Process Servers Alliance, The Mackinac Center, the Center for Michigan, the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, Michigan Council for Professional Investigators, Flint Area Chamber of Commerce, Michigan Legal Specialists, West Michigan Tea Party, Campaign for Liberty and the David K. Fox Law Firm.