Order in the courtroom and beyond
(IDG) -- The United States court systems are not generally known as technological innovators, relying on reams of paper for every case and grinding through processes as old and arcane as the language of the law.
Bucking tradition, the Judicial Information Division of New Mexico's Judiciary is using the Internet to overhaul that state's court system -- and showing the other 49 states how Web technology can breathe new life into the legal process.
Just over one year ago, Chief Justice Gene E. Franchini of New Mexico's Supreme Court decided that all state court records -- already publicly available in theory but difficult to find in practice -- should be made more easily accessible to the community and court personnel.
He and his IT department considered giving users direct network access to court records, but abandoned that idea for the Internet.
Judge Franchini charged Terrie Bousquin, CIO of the New Mexico Judiciary, with the tremendous task of building a Web site that lets users look up detailed information about court cases.
In just six months, Bousquin and her staff built the first site that lets users search for cases in a state's Supreme Court -- but not without their fair share of stumbling blocks and surprises.
The Case Lookup site lets users track the activity of cases in the New Mexico Supreme Court or -- although it is not meant for perusing -- find cases by types of crime, perpetrators' names, or previously known Social Security numbers.
"It was all new technology for everybody -- it was a learn-as-you-go way to do things," says Bousquin, whose staff had previously been limited to support and maintenance of desktops and client/server applications. "Flying by the seat of our pants is pretty close to the way we did it."
Bousquin's first technical hurdle was creating a central repository for all of the court records spread across the judicial system in 67 disparate databases. At that time, the necessary replication tools were not mature, so her staff solved most technical issues with "brute force," as Bousquin puts it.
They also had to choose a developmental framework for the Case Lookup site. They decided on Prolifics JetNet Edition to handle the three-tier system, which had to be able to access information from a variety of platforms, databases, and servers.
But Bousquin's real problems were legal and moral rather than technical. As the first court system to develop such a Web application, they had to create their own model from a legal standpoint, interpreting New Mexico statutes in a reasonable way.
Even though personal information may be legally public, Bousquin decided her Case Lookup application would not automatically display phone numbers, Social Security numbers, and addresses because "it simply wasn't right."
Their next problem turned out to be a happy one.
"We underestimated the number of people using the site. We assumed that primarily attorneys and police officers would use it. We're not totally able to provide the amount of wanted support," says Bousquin. But the department is working on that part.
Since it went live in June of 1998, the Case Lookup site has gotten more than 44,000 external hits -- an enormous response considering New Mexico's population is just 1.5 million people -- and 19,000 internal hits.
Because citizens no longer have to come into the court house for case information, clerks no longer have to spend as much time helping the public and can focus on current court schedules instead. And no matter who needs the information, locating files through the Web site is much faster than rifling through paper documents.
A taste of technology
Once the justice department got a taste of how Web technology can transform the way the legal system works, users demanded more.
Again blazing the way for the U.S. court systems, Bousquin's current project is a pilot program that allows the 11th district public defenders and the district attorney's office to file criminal cases through the Internet. Response from attorneys has been "very positive," and her staff plans to take the application statewide within a year.
"Electronic filing in the court system is the hottest thing around. Everybody wants to do it," Bousquin says. "[Users] have a concept of getting rid of paper -- paper overwhelms the court. The Web site? That was nothing! That was a tough six months, but electronic filing is a much more difficult project, primarily because of support aspects."
"There's a lot to be done," Bousquin adds with a laugh. "Video conferencing, different recording [technologies] -- there's lots of technology out there. It's starting to translate into the day-to-day for courts."
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