VirtualCourthouse ; Issue 6.5
Electroninc Filing in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt (Ret.) July 2001
On May 1, 2001–National Law Day–Washington, D.C.’s Superior Court launched an electronic filing pilot project. The project culminated a six-year effort by the Superior Court, which has one of the highest per capita caseloads in the country, to introduce an e-filing service for its “Civil One Division” cases, aiming to streamline the complex civil litigation that fills that division’s docket. The pilot, which will run for one year, requires that the attorneys in the six hundred or so cases assigned to that court file only electronically. If the pilot is successful, e-filing will be extended to other civil matters.
On June 14, 2001 The Circuit Court for Baltimore City launched an electronic filing project for 20,000+ asbestos cases. This effort also culminated 5 years of planning by the court and the asbestos bar. The pilot will run for 2 years in accordance with an Order signed by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell approving the project pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-307.
Baltimore-Washington Regional Filing
Thus, the Baltimore ¬ Washington region became the first state court regional approach to electronic filing of court documents. Significantly, 75% of the lawyers who file in the Washington, D.C. Superior Court electronic filing cases also file in the Baltimore City Circuit Court electronic filing cases. The same percentage is true for the lawyers who file in the Baltimore City Circuit Court. This means that a lawyer will be filing and accessing the case file the same way in two independent courts in different states ¬ a national first.
The Washington, D.C. Superior Court’s e-filing efforts began in 1995, when the Technology Committee for the Superior Court, headed by Judge Rufus King, who is now chief judge, visited neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland. The Circuit Court there had initiated the first national electronic filing pilot project in partnership with the National Center for State Courts and Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). The pilot, known as JusticeLink, was the first effort to test the concept of electronic filing. The final report on that pilot is posted online at http://www.ncsc.dni.us/NCSC/TIS/TIS99/electr99/JusticeLink/JUSTCOVER.HTM .
At about the same time, Judge Herbert Dixon, chair of the sub-committee for e-filing for D.C.’s Superior Court, attended a national court technology conference, where he participated in an electronic filing educational program.
The members of the committee began to explore a variety of implementation strategies. The committee decided early on that it required the expertise of an Internet-orientated technology company and that entering into a public ¬ private partnership would enhance the court’s success. The court selected CourtLink, the successor to JusticeLink.see http://www.courtlink.com.
The Baltimore City Circuit Court began discussing the necessity for electronic filing to solve the overwhelming paper problems in asbestos litigation in 1996 under the leadership of Administrative Judge Joseph Kaplan and Judge Edward Angeletti. Current Administrative Judge Ellen Heller and Judge William Quarles followed their efforts. Like Washington, the Baltimore bench saw the Prince George’s court electronic filing pilot as a way to better manage a paper intensive docket and ultimately selected CourtLink, the successor to JusticeLink.
A CourtLink team consisting of Marsha Edwards, Michael Dunn, Jehanne Edwards and Kendall Smith managed both the D.C. Superior Court and Baltimore Circuit Court implementations. The implementation team employed a five-step process:
Rallying the Leadership-Judges Must Lead the Way. Managing change is the most critical element for a successful electronic filing project, and judicial leadership is key to that success. The Superior Court project was led by Chief Judge Rufus King, aided by the dogged persistence of both Judge Herbert Dixon and Judge Brooke Hedge, who chairs the Technology Committee. Judge Dixon in particular eased the nervousness of clerks and lawyers by assuring them that they would have input in the project. Judge Dixon said, “We believe e-filing will become a normal, typical and regular part of litigation in the near future. I firmly believe there will be e-filing on a substantial basis in future years.”
In Baltimore it was Judges Kaplan, Angeletti, Heller and Quarles who led the charge. Judge Heller said, “Now, we will be able to put order in the voluminous paper associated with the filings. There is too much paper associated with the law, and this is the first step in bringing that under control.” The manual filing of cases is “antiquated, absurd and an anachronism”, according to Judge Heller.
Judge Quarles said, “We are happy to see e-filing becoming a reality at Baltimore City Circuit Court, it marks the culmination of a lot of hard work on the part of attorneys, clerk’s office personnel, the vendor and judges. We look forward to the time in the near future when we can demonstrate the benefits of e-filing for a variety of types of litigation. The future is now.”
But, leadership from the bar is equally important. Maryland lawyer John Nagle not only led the way by coordinating the lawyers, but also became an agent of change. John spent countless hours as he eased the skepticism and nervousness of his colleagues and presented the persuasive case for the benefits of change at countless bar association meetings.
Assessing Requirements. The CourtLink team worked with the court to identify potential e-filing cases; evaluate available hardware; identify necessary court personnel and procedures; establish the applicability of local court rules; and to determine the availability of case management data. The team also began a survey of potential e-filing law firms, and assessed the status of the law firm’s hardware and Internet connectivity capacity. The CourtLink team also gathered necessary case data and required product features.
Preparing an Implementation Plan: The court and CourtLink developed a project schedule, which contained a detailed case management order the court proposed using to implement e-filing in selected cases.
Verifying Participation and Training. After identifying all lawyers in the selected cases, CourtLink mailed to each lawyer and firm the Court case management order and detailed instructions outlining the sign-up procedure and training schedule. Finally, CourtLink conducted in-person as well as Web-based, interactive training sessions for the lawyers and firm staff, as well as for judges and court personnel.
Marketing. As public opinion is key to ensure the success of the e-filing pilot, publicizing the project was critical. Before the May 1st Washington launch date, the CourtLink marketing team sent to all participating lawyers three separate communications. Judge Dixon and Craig Husa, senior vice president for Court Services at CourtLink Corp., participated in an eFile panel discussion at the annual District of Columbia Bar Association meeting. Media outreach was conducted to educate the community. In addition, “Ask me about eFile” buttons were created and distributed to the courthouse community. Finally, on May 1st, a roundtable breakfast discussion was held. Roundtable panelists included Chief Judge Rufus King, Judge Herbert Dixon, Judge Brooke Hedge, CourtLink CEO Henry Givray and Technology Consultant James I. Keane.
Before the June 14th Baltimore launch the marketing effort was repeated. Judge Heller participated in an e-file panel discussion at the Maryland Bar Association Annual Meeting in Ocean City, Maryland.
Mandatory v. Permissive Filing
Key to the project is the commitment and determination of the D.C. Superior Court to make electronic filing mandatory across a breadth of cases. If everyone participated in the process, greater experience would be gained, which would lead to the establishment of the best future practices for e-filing litigants.
The issue of mandatory versus permissive use is ever-present in modeling a successful e-filing project. And there are arguments on both sides. However, a compelling factor is getting enough initial activity to make reasonable decisions about the future, and to overcome resistance to change. In fact, almost all pleading rules are mandatory. Quite a few years ago, the rules committees of most courts passed mandatory rules requiring the size of the paper to be reduced from legal to letter size–a major economic impact on lawyers, but a considerable cost saving to courts. The savings which electronic filing can bring to the courts are far greater than the savings brought about by a reduction in the size of paper.
While some may view the cost of electronic filing as an added cost, it is difficult to make a persuasive argument that e filing costs more than paper, ink, postage and delivery service. CourtLink charges 10 cents per page – a minimum of $2 per filing and the same for service. A party can, alternatively, be given a courtesy notification for 50 cents. There are no sign up fees, no monthly minimums or fixed fees. Fees are based on the number and size of transactions. (A transaction is simply defined as filing or serving a package of electronic documents to one or more parties.) The cost of a single 15-page document, served on 20 parties (300 pages, total) would be $32.00
10¢ x 15 pages to court = $ 2.00 min [$1.50] 10¢ x 300 pages to parties = 30.00
Total = $32.00
A wise man once said, “Leadership is getting people to do what they do not want to do. Great Leadership is making people excited about doing what they do not want to do”. The Judicial Leadership of the D.C. Superior Court and the Baltimore City Circuit Court are clearly demonstrating Great Leadership.
Judge Herbert B. Dixon, Jr., Presiding Judge, Civil and Multi Door Divisions, said, “The six hundred initial cases in this electronic filing pilot project will give us tremendous e-filing experience with cases in nearly every stage of litigation ¬ from initial discovery, to final motions, pretrial and trial. We are looking at this opportunity in much the same way that colonial frontiersmen saw their exploratory travels to the West. We know there will be mountains to climb and uncharted territory to conquer ¬ but we know also that e filing is the future, merely awaiting our first steps in that direction. The experience gained during this project will test our initial polices and protocols, cause revisions, and will go a long ways towards our effort to establish the best future practices for e-filing litigants.”
While lawyers may have the opportunity to file pleadings electronically in Baltimore and Washington, what does the bar do while waiting for electronic filing to be adopted in the other courts in Baltimore-Washington region? Recently, CourtLink surveyed its e-filing statistics and some of its national users and discovered that less that 25% of electronic transactions were as a result of electronic filing with the court ¬ the other 75% were created by service and notifications. What has become apparent-surprising some- is that the important value (to the lawyer) of electronic filing is the access to all of the pleadings in a case 24 hours a day 7 days a week-a complete electronic case file. A lawyer no longer needs to spend precious time chasing a paper file. Chasing the paper is an event of the past.