Issue 2.2 Electronic Public Access

VirtualCourthouse; Issue 2.2
Electronic Public Access

Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt

This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter

Electronic public access (“EPA”) to court information is a quickly-evolving segment of the information age. In Prince George’s County, the Circuit Court has been at the national forefront of providing the public with electronic access to its court records.

In 1990, the Circuit Court along with the Prince George’s County Information Services Division entered into a public/private partnership with Bell Atlantic’s information service known as “Intelligate” to provide access to subscribers through it service known as “PGONLINE.” Subscription increased to a high of approximately 250 individuals and businesses. A subscriber was given access to case dockets and some limited scheduling information. Subscribers were charged $.45 per minute. In 1995 Bell Atlantic made a corporate decision to terminate its information service provider Intelligate and consequently PGONLINE was operated for a short period of time by the Information Services Division of the Prince George’s County Government.

In early 1996, the County entered into a public/private partnership with Ameritech to provide public electronic access through its service “CIVICLINK.” CIVICLINK was an information service which was intended to provide access to all government information — the courts being just a part of the total picture. This service charged for information on a transaction basis rather than a per/minute basis. For instance, if a subscriber wanted to obtain the scheduled events for a specific case, that would cost $2.50. If another case’s events were needed, an additional charge of $2.50 would be assessed. In December 1996, Ameritech determined to withdraw from the partnership and subsequently it is reported that it has abandoned the CIVICLINK service.

Concurrently with the CIVICLINK partnership, the Court and the County also entered into a public/private partnership with Andersen Consulting to conduct the first state court national pilot for electronic filing of court documents through its service “JUSTICELINK.” That pilot was successfully completed in August 1996 with over 200 pleadings successfully filed electronically. The pilot is awaiting negotiation and funding of a permanent partnership agreement.

The Court and County are presently in the final stages of negotiation of a public/private partnership with DataWest and their information service “COURTLINK.” It is expected that this service will be available in the Spring of 1997. COURTLINK is a service similar to PGONLINE and CIVICLINK. It charges its customers $75/hour billed to the minute and second of usage. COURTLINK, however, promises to be here to stay. Currently, COURTLINK provides public electronic access to 85 United States District Courts and United States Bankruptcy Courts, and the state courts of Washington and Oregon. Among its customers are 100 out of 200 of the largest national law firms, General Electric Credit and numerous other national businesses.

Members of the Bar and public should consider this valuable resource even before the Court’s information has been published. First, it will allow a user to complete the learning curve ahead of its local information availability. Second, the current information available from the regional U.S. District Courts will be a valuable tool. Subscription information and a demonstration disk can be obtained from the East Coast Account Manager, Mary Anne Karia at 1-800-774-7317 or E-Mail at Mkaria@courtlink.com. A single station software package is priced at $49. Multiple-station packages start at $395.

Some very clear lessons have been learned as a result of this seven-year experience. First, EPA of multiple courts is a complex problem. It is not capable of ordinary “cookie cutting” patterns which the telecommunications industry has become accustomed. The databases of each county and each county’s courts are as diverse as the personalities of the executive, legislative and judicial branch of a county’s governmental structure.

Each county has its own personality which will be reflected in its computer database. Likewise, the structure of each county’s communication with other public and private agencies will represent the same diversity. Secondly, the bar and public are discouraged to use a system which has a complex method of determining the cost of use. Third, the bar and public will be motivated to use a system which presents a single method of accessing multiple and diverse databases. A member of the Bar has need for information from three states (Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia) and ten major counties. If each county or each state has its own protocol for access, then use is cumbersome, time consuming and thus not cost effective.

Public electronic access to court records is here to stay. Recently, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts proposed technical standards for electronic filing. These standards provide for flexibility to the local court.

A copy of the standards may be obtained by requesting a copy from Electronic Filing Standards, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, OIT-TEO, Washington, DC 20554 (or via facsimile at 202-273-2459). Generally, the standards are broken into several categories: (i) document and file format standards; (ii) electronic filing process standards; (iii) document and file format guidelines; (iv) communications guidelines; (v) document and system security guidelines; and (6) electronic filing process guidelines. The standards are well thought out and allow reasonable flexibility for a changing technological environment. At the same time, the standards protect the accuracy, security and permanency of the Court’s record. The details of the standards are worthy of future discussion.

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