Maryland working to create electronic court system, wary of pitfalls

  • Behind the scenes  and several forests worth of pulp  work is underway to transform Marylands courts into a system that is nearly paperless.
Behind the scenes and several forests worth of pulp work is underway… (Kim Hairston )
July 11, 2012|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Behind the scenes — and several forests’ worth of pulp — work is underway to transform Maryland’s courts into a system that is nearly paperless.

Plans call for the first courts in the state to go electronic in fall of 2013. The guinea pigs are the circuit and district courts in Anne Arundel County. Statewide appeals courts will follow.

By the end of 2016, all Maryland courts are to be e-courts. The cost: $45 million, said Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court and who heads the project. But as Maryland moves forward, it is also wading into a debate about how much information should be online, and who can access it.

There will be public hearings for proposed rules, and the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will have to vote on them next year, and ideally they will take effect by August 2013. Among the thorniest questions: Will anyone with access to a computer be able to peruse court documents? Or will people have to go to a courthouse to read a virtual file? What information should be publicly available to all?

Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said progressive states keep most filings open to the public — the same briefs, pleadings, affidavits and records that are open in a paper file — but the organization has seen other states use technology to take “huge backward steps in public access.”

A lot of personal information is sealed from public view in paper court files. Retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan M. Wilner, who is overseeing the drafting of new court rules, said his group is trying to similarly shield sensitive information like bank account numbers from people who lack court permission.

Many other states are going to electronic courts, and their rules are “all over the place,” Wilner said.

Even whether all lawyers will be forced to file electronically, as they are in federal courts, has significant implications.

“If they are able to opt out and do, we are going to need a lot more clerks to scan the paper. They will be scanning all day,” Wilner said.

They’ll already be scanning. Half of all Maryland couples splitting up don’t hire divorce lawyers and are expected to keep filing paper in Circuit Court, and many people have no attorney for minor District Court cases.

If lawyers don’t have to file any paper appellate briefs, and judges prefer reading a fat brief on paper, then the printing costs have simply shifted from filers to taxpayers, he said.

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