The proposed SB 531 is a good first step in the plan to create a statewide e-filing docket management system moving Michigan’s court system into the 21st Century. We support this effort to address funding. But important issues need to be addressed.
Most importantly and, as yet unanswered, is the issue of public access, transparency and accountability in the proposed statewide e-filing system and costs, if any, for the public to remotely access these files. Currently, anyone can walk into most circuit or district clerk’s offices and read full court documents, that are not under seal, without a fee. These are public records. How will this same transparency be provided for remote access by the public in an e-filing docket management system? What will it cost the public, if anything? Is Michigan going to model its system after the PACER system in the federal courts? Costs to the public is a major concern.
SB 531 or some companion legislation needs to specifically address this omission. Historically, the courts have been very open and transparent. Our concerns stem from a movement towards less accountability and more secrecy in terms of court finances in the past several years.
Other states, some larger than Michigan, have tackled these issues. Texas is doing a gradual roll out of its system right now (http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/saving-paper-e-filing-court-system-goes-statewide/nnq28/). The Texas court system is still reviewing how to handle public access.
The pilot programs in various circuits around Michigan have produced mixed results, and very valuable lessons have been learned. For example, in Oakland County, e-filing has been a revenue generator, but in Midland County (where just asbestos cases were being handled) the docket management system could not handle the sheer volume of that type of case. The pilot program was shut down. These real life experiences are hopefully guiding the planning of the state’s Supreme Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO).
It is also important for efficiency and consistency, we believe, that the state adopt a unified docket management system. Having a variety of docket management systems, then integrating them at the appellate levels would be complex, more expensive to launch and maintain and likely more error prone. Despite the inevitable objections of circuits that are operating under pilot systems and want to keep “their own,” we believe it is better for the citizens of the state of Michigan to have a single, unified system. Most attorneys practice in multiple circuits and the Attorney General’s assistants practice in all 57 circuits. A unified system would also provide redundancy and assistance to smaller circuits. We are a mobile society and the reach of the web is worldwide, so navigation of a standardized system throughout the state’s 57 circuits in its 83 counties would be better for local court administrators, attorneys, litigants and the citizens of Michigan.
How this transition is financed and the e-filing system set-up, maintained and routinely updated are issues of major concern to a significant number of county clerks around the state. MiCOG did a survey of all 57 circuits court clerks in 2013 to learn their concerns. Most clerks responded. Though many were in favor of e-filing (though a surprisingly large number were unfamiliar with e-filing and unaware the SCAO was considering this at that time), a large number of clerks (and judges) in smaller circuits in less populated areas were very concerned about what many termed “yet another unfunded mandate” from the Supreme Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO).
Some of these issues will be resolved by SB 531, but important questions remain unanswered: How will the fees collected be allocated? What will be the financial burden, if any, to the local circuit and district courts? to name just two of those questions.
Other omissions in SB 531 that need to be addressed include: specifically requiring public accountability and transparency by the SCAO with regular reports (to the Legislature and posted on its website for public access) to show how much fee money has been collected from each circuit; how these fees are being spent; how much money is being allocated to each circuit and district court system; what is the process for determining how much funding is allocated the individual court systems around the state (if there is a formula, that should be public), etc.
We have raised these issues and concerns in a letter to the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee. A hearing on this bill is set for 3 p.m., Tuesday, October 6, 2015 in Room 110 Farnum Building in Lansing.