The Final Frontier for Client-Server Computing
The Final Frontier for Client-Server Computing<@VM>Obstacles to Automation<@VM>Funding Dictates Uniformity<@VM>The New Mexico Solution<@VM>Going to the Web<@VM>Forecast Cloudy
By Jon William Toigo
Client-server computing has proven a godsend to many businesses for automating paper-based work flows and imposing standard processes across geographically dispersed operations. By contrast, state and county courts have been slow to deploy client-server technology despite its potential benefits for the efficient and timely processing of mounting case loads.
The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., reports that case loads in criminal and civil courts at the county and state level have jumped as much as 64 percent since 1984. Despite this fact, information processing remains a largely paper-based, labor-intensive and time-consuming task in the state court system. In the absence of automation, case load processing has been impaired, resulting in huge backlogs of civil and criminal cases in many states.
Besides mitigating constitutional rights to a speedy trial, this situation also has raised concerns among jurists, including the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, about the quality of justice derived from the state court system. Burger urged in 1971 that an independent organization be formed to provide leadership and technical support to the states. Another facet would encourage the deployment of automated systems to help standardize procedures and record-keeping. NCSC was one outcome of this effort.
"NCSC is attempting to address some difficult implementation obstacles in automating the state court system," says Randy Fox, vice president for product engineering with systems integrator Progressive Solutions Inc. of Salt Lake City.
"State courts are the final frontier for client-server technology. One reason is that most states fund their courts at a county level and not many have been able to get the counties to come together as a group and to deploy a solution," Fox says.
One such example is Florida, where privately held Progressive Solutions has been aggressively marketing its FACTS Court Management System and integration services to nearly every county in the state.
Last April, FACTS got the nod in Brevard County, according to Curt Unruh, information systems director with the Brevard County Clerk of the Court in Titusville, Fla., because of Progressive's characterization of the project as a "cooperative venture" with the county clerk's office.
"Progressive has something like 100 implementations of the FACTS system in various states and counties throughout the U.S.," he says. "Part of the problem with delivering a court management system for all states is that the laws vary from state to state regarding types of data that the system must handle, the formats of the data, quantification methods used, and in many other [procedural and administrative] details."
As a result, he says, Progressive Solutions finds counties to partner with in order to make its FACTS software comply with a state's regulations and laws.
Unruh believes that deploying a uniform court management system is key to achieving "economies of scale" and statewide data sharing the holy grail of court automation. He likes Progressive Solutions' FACTS because of the inherent scalability of its client-server architecture and because of the deployment flexibility and customization afforded by its extensive use of data tables.
Unruh points out that previous efforts to create a uniform court administration system for all Florida counties met with only limited success. "The Florida Association of County Clerks tried to become a solution provider for clerks throughout the state. They created a case management system for criminal courts after consulting with all of the counties. The problem was that their system played to the lowest common denominator. It worked well for small counties, but could not scale to meet the needs of larger counties."
"We have invested $530,000 to implement FACTS. That includes 200 end-user licenses, plus an Internet license that basically extends the client-server system to a limitless number of end users. The entire system is built on database tables, which we are currently customizing to meet our needs."
The FACTS solution from Progressive replaces several legacy systems developed in-house for criminal, civil, traffic, domestic and juvenile case management, Unruh says. "The old systems don't talk to each other. They replicate information and are difficult to manage. FACTS will replace them and create a single, integrated, court administration system that will deliver management benefits as well as year 2000 compliance. We will also tie our existing electronic document management system into FACTS so that document images can be displayed together with data points."
Unruh expects the civil case administration component of FACTS to be operational by April 1999; the criminal and other sections should go online in June. The FACTS application and its underlying Informix database operates on a Silicon Graphics Origin system. He looks forward to using the system to deliver court case information to more than 200 end users and to enable querying of the court management database via the Web.
The new client-server system also will meet state reporting requirements, he says. Like many states, Florida has a state court oversight agency at the state government level the Office of State Court Administration that has promulgated a set of uniform reporting requirements for county-based courts. These mandates are designed in part to encourage the deployment of standardized court automation systems. However, most requirements pertain to summary data furnished by the county to the state. At the county level, courts remain free to capture, maintain and administer case information using whatever method or system that their budgets permit, he says.
Progressive is one of a growing cadre of companies that are providing client-server-based court automation solutions. Competitors include AMA JusTech of Newport, R.I., whose Uniform Court System is deployed on a statewide basis in Alaska and Maryland and on a smaller scale in counties and municipalities in seven other states. Another vendor, SCT Government Systems of Lexington, Ky., has deployed its solution in Rhode Island and Florida.
Jim Macmillan, director of the Court Technology Laboratory at NCSC, is monitoring the activities of state and county courts deploying automation solutions. But uniform case management processing on a statewide basis is elusive, according to Macmillan.
"There is no doubt that the level to which court case load administration is automated directly relates to funding. If courts are locally funded, as in the case of Florida, technology implementations vary widely from county to county. In a few cases, such as Arizona and New Mexico, state funds were made available for court automation. This means that there is a good chance for statewide, consistent automation solutions."
Macmillan says a uniform case management system on a statewide basis can do more than improve the efficiency of case administration. It also holds out the prospect of supporting better decision-making.
"If a state can gather all information pertaining to its cases into a single database or data warehouse, it could become a useful tool for supporting better judgments," he says. "The problem, of course, is that vendors offer different court case management systems with no consistency or interoperability between them. Moreover, counties frequently maintain their own procedures and methods for categorizing and capturing information. These are huge obstacles."
But there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, says Macmillan. He points to an Integrated Justice Project in Colorado that seeks to integrate county systems to establish a data warehouse. The best approach, he says, might be the one taken in Arizona and New Mexico where state funding is being provided to counties for automation.
Terrie Bousquin, director of the Judicial Information Division with the state of New Mexico, agrees with Macmillan's assessment. Driven by a mandate to find ways to facilitate "enhanced sentencing" in the trial courts throughout the state, Bousquin has been working with Progressive Solutions to deploy the FACTS case management system in 90 sites throughout the state.
"We wanted to develop the means to share information between state courts and to simplify enhanced sentencing, which is basically the assignment of penalties based on the number of repeat offenses," Bousquin says. "Only 15 of 90 courts were automated before this project. There were too few clerks and most offices were understaffed. That meant that judges did not have ready access to the records of cases involving litigants handled in other counties. The FACTS system will enable the electronic filing of court documents in criminal cases. While court clerks will need to check and verify the documents, they won't have to do any manual filing. The documents will be available for review by judges and opposing counsel within 24 hours of filing."
Bousquin says the rollout of FACTS was initiated following the state's selection of the product in 1995, and was largely complete by June 1997. Seventy IBM RS6000 servers have been installed within county trial courts, each with its own database and file service.PCs are the clients. One court that was not implemented had an existing investment in an IBM AS400-based case management system, Bousquin reports, "but they have agreed to format data and forward it to our shared statewide database."
Bousquin says the state database is a central repository for data collected in the Informix databases used at county installations. New Mexico faced several challenges in building a routed frame relay network to facilitate the exchange of case data between far-flung counties and the state repository, Bousquin reports.
"New Mexico is served by 18 different telecommunications companies and frame relay services weren't available everywhere. Also, we have had difficulty finding good replication tools for distributing the FACTS Informix database. We load it by brute force at the moment."
New Mexico's initial deployment of FACTS featured a two-tier architecture and cost about $18 million, with $1.2 million spent on Progressive's software licenses. The budget included software, hardware, networking and services. An additional $10 million was budgeted to support the implementation.
Responding to interest within the New Mexico Judiciary to make court records available to the public via the Internet, an additional project was undertaken in May to deploy the FACTS Web access component.
The project called for the Web-enablement of the centralized FACTS database a "third tier" of the deployment by July 1. Security concerns, however, complicated the picture, according to Bousquin.
"Court information has always been public, so privacy was not a major concern," Bousquin says. "We did need to make sure that only nonsequestered information about a case was made available. Certain types of information including data about adoptions, the details of domestic violence cases, and data about litigants including their Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and addresses were not to be disclosed. Law enforcement officials, for example, were afraid that some information could be used to create forged documents."
To cope with these caveats within a short time frame, Progressive Solutions brought in a development environment product from Prolifics, New York. The Prolifics environment was used by Progressive and state technical staff to build a customized Web interface for the 50-million-record FACTS database that provided security features required by the state. The product was credited with the successful completion of the project within the allotted time frame and on budget at about $100,000 for software licensing.
Since going online July 1, Bousquin says, the site (www.nmcourts.com) has received upward of 3,500 hits per month. "That is a lot, considering there are only 1.5 million people in New Mexico."
The success of states such as New Mexico and Arizona in deploying statewide court automation solutions are still the exception rather than the rule. Mary Lewallen, automation manager with the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne, reports that her state has just inked a deal with Progressive Solutions to deploy FACTS in courts of limited jurisdiction throughout the state.
However, the state's 23 district courts (called courts of general jurisdiction) fall outside the aegis of her office and are not currently included in the effort.
Lewallen says a far-reaching judicial reorganization is under-way in Wyoming that holds out hope for a universal court automation solution. She anticipates, if the general jurisdiction courts become part of the effort, that a uniform court management system could become a fact of life in Wyoming within two to three years.
Progressive's Fox points out that, in the absence of state sponsorship, getting counties to cooperate in deploying a common product is difficult. NCSC's Macmillan adds that tremendous hurdles remain, even after new client-server database systems are deployed, to achieve his organization's vision of a court records database as a decision support mechanism.
"There is still a lot of work to be done just to achieve the administrative benefits of automation improving and simplifying the process work that needs to be done by clerks and court administrators," Macmillan says.
"The new court automation systems from Progressive and others provide increased capabilities to manage events. Once a case is entered, the system can calendar the meetings, automatically send out summonses, track when notices are received and so forth. Right now, in a certain county of Virginia, the allocation of court rooms for hearing cases is based on something as arbitrary as the phases of the moon. Lawyers literally wander around looking for an available room."
Macmillan says that once automation of administrative process work is complete, the focus will shift to decision-making. "The real objective is to improve decision-making by looking at the outcomes of decisions made in the real world. This requires a uniform court automation system and a database that can be used to establish a real data warehouse."