Missouri Takes Lead With 'Electronic Courthouse'

Missouri Takes Lead With 'Electronic Courthouse'

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

Billed by supporters as an "electronic courthouse" and a model of planning and coordination, the Missouri court system is moving toward complete integration at a level unmatched in the United States.

With three case management pilot projects under way, plans to add up to 52 courts to the case management automation system by 2000, and a program that dates back to the early 1990s, Missouri seeks to unite all counties and circuit courts, both civil and criminal, with state agencies in a completely integrated system.

According to M. James Roggero, project director and chief information officer for Missouri state courts, the Missouri Court Automation Project, formerly known as Electronic Courts 2004, is pursued at this level in no other state.

"We're the only state that's doing this magnitude of effort and integration. Many states would like to do this, but first they have to standardize," Roggero said.

That effort, which Roggero referred to as alignment, called for a statewide standard for hardware and software that would serve as the infrastructure for case management integration to manage the court operation, including file numbers and case disposition.

"The whole process was done in a very businesslike fashion. With alignment in place, our next step was to put out an RFP in 1995 soliciting case tracking and management software to fit all different courts and types in the state, from small rural courts to the appellate," said Roggero.

Lexington Ky.-based SCT Government Systems Inc. won the contract to implement the Banner case management software for Missouri. The three pilot sites using the system include Montgomery County, the Court of Appeals, Eastern District, and Jackson County. The latter two sites have tested the software and are preparing to go online.

The automated court system's goal is to link all Missouri courts, allow lawyers and private citizens, among others, to access court information, allow litigants and legal professionals to file documents electronically and lessen storage burdens.

The RFP states: "The judiciary will be able to better assess case loads and distribute workloads fairly, without artificial restriction imposed by circuit boundaries. In the future, advanced technology, such as voice-response systems, interactive video and information centers (kiosks), will expand the realm of possibilities and further the significant improvements that an automated court system can provide in the delivery of justice services."

Set up in 1991, the Court Automation Project was formalized in 1994 and 1995 when the legislature approved it and the leadership of the state Supreme Court and court operations focused on three areas: service, justice and access. The law established a Missouri Court Automation Committee, which administers the project.

"The perception among the leadership was that all three areas could be enhanced through automation and technology," said Roggero. "Certainly, the technology has changed significantly since 1991 and 1992, and enhancements have broadened the scope of the project. The vision now is to automate the court system, with all courts interacting with each other and allowing judiciary to interact with other agencies within the structure, including the legislative and executive.

"This amounts, among other things, to direct relations with the highway patrol, social services and the revenue department," he said.

Another part of the court integration vision was to link to other agencies across the nation and allow access to them. The vision was not only a reflection of the magnitude and dynamics of legal cases, but also a recognition of citizen interest in trying to handle court proceedings on their own. Automation allowed citizens to access documents without visiting the

"Filing documents electronically, for example, allows the courts to alleviate the burden of storage. Most courts are in old facilities with cramped quarters and limited space. Our automation effort is founded on information networks linking all our judicial assets, that is, people, facilities and equipment," said Roggero.

Larry Polansky, an independent court consultant from Lake Harmony, Pa., was retained by Missouri to evaluate its progress in automating its system. He has performed two reviews of the project.

"In my experience, this was the first project in the state court system where a department focused on a logical progression of building a foundation before moving on to doing specific projects," Polansky said.

The first step was to build an infrastructure that could handle the kinds of things they were doing. The approach elsewhere in the nation "is a little piece at a time," he said.

While technology is getting better, the courts are not at the forefront of innovation and initiative. Polansky recalled using case tracking management software as far back as 1967 in a Philadelphia firm, but the attitude then, as now, among most in the court system is, "Let's see someone else do it."

Roggero noted four factors in the project's success. First is the support of the senior leadership, including the state's chief executive and the justices of the state Supreme Court. Second is the availability and commitment of talented people.

"The third is getting the user involved, for example, creating user groups. This includes people who are clerks at the courthouses, private citizens, lawyers, people actually involved in the system. We had juvenile, probate and traffic groups with users for each one," Roggero said.

The fourth category is accountability and the relationship with the vendor, he said. "We hired Andersen Consulting to do a business analysis of our needs, both internal and external."

The strength of the Banner case management software, according to Jeff Martini, SCT's vice president of sales and marketing, is the depth, breadth and flexibility of the application itself, which is an Oracle-based system.

"We feel we have the best solution for complex and large court environments. We cover all aspects of managing the case, from initiation to the end; we automate the entire process," Martini said.

With a target market of mid- to large-sized courts, including county and municipal courts with a high volume of cases, SCT is strong in Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas, Martini said. He added the company is now working on two international projects.

While the law is different in those markets, the same processes and work flows are followed, making the software compatible in certain overseas markets.

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