Cook County courts ordered to make e-filings immediately available to public

In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts, alleging that the county was posting electronically filed complaints days after receiving them, even though the complaints should have been immediately available to the press as public records.

On Monday, the federal court agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction which gives Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thirty days to develop a system under which the press can gain immediate access to newly filed cases.

I do not envy Dorothy Brown. Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected her request for a one-year extension of the deadline to align Cook County’s e-filing system with that of the rest of the state. This new decision only turns up the heat on Cook County to develop a functional e-filing system in very short order.

In new lawsuit, court journalists allege that electronic case filing undermines transparency

The Courthouse News Service, a specialty news service focusing on civil cases across the United States, has sued the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Clerk’s Office. The lawsuit alleges that the Clerk’s office is withholding information on new case filings from the public for days after the cases are filed. In particular, the suit claims that the Clerk’s office is not immediately disclosing some electronically filed complaints, even though those complaints should be public record as soon as they are filed.

The Cook County Record reports:

Under the old method, the lawsuit said, journalists working in the courthouse were able to freely access paper lawsuits as they were filed with the circuit clerk’s office, even before they entered the official intake process, as the courts considered such lawsuits public information from the moment they were dropped off at the clerk’s office, essentially making private disputes the public’s business.

However, as more and more lawsuits have been e-filed, CNS said the clerk’s office has withheld more and more of them, for days or weeks at a time, as they are administratively processed.

“These delays in access … is (sic) the result of the Clerk’s policy and practice of withholding new e-filed complaints from press review until after the performance of administrative processing, including post-filing ‘acceptance’ of the complaint, at which time the Clerk deems the complaint ‘officially filed,’” CNS wrote in its lawsuit. “The Clerk takes this position even though the applicable rules and orders provide that e-filed complaints received before midnight on a court day are ‘deemed filed’ on the date of receipt, even if they are not ‘officially’ accepted as filed until a later date…”

CNS noted this particularly allows plaintiffs’ lawyers to control the initial flow of information about their lawsuits, as they can spoon feed the complaints to news outlets they may consider more friendly or sympathetic, while other competing outlets wait days or weeks for access to the vital public documents associated with the case.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and names Cook County court clerk Dorothy Brown as a defendant. The case number is 1:17-cv-07933. Ironically, the Courthouse News Service does not seem to have uploaded the complaint to its own news website.

The logistical challenges of local court administration

One of the challenges for litigators who practice across state boundaries is making sense of state court systems: not just the culture and norms of the area, but often the structure and administration of the courts themselves. Many states are downright byzantine, with a large number of specialized courts (sometimes with overlapping jurisdictions), and no unified (or only recently unified) court systems. Local courts, covering counties and municipalities, are often under the governance of their host city or county rather than a centralized judicial administrator.

This is a product of history as much as anything, but it leads to obvious inefficiencies. One example making the headlines this week comes from Clark County, Ohio, where the county council has voted against consolidating two clerk of court offices, in part because they use entirely different electronic records systems. The move was originally proposed as a way to save up to $400,000 a year for the cash-strapped city of Springfield, but the city was unable to fund a study to confirm that number. In the end, lawyers, judges, and others will have to continue navigating different court systems with different technological resources.

A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system

The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article yesterday on daily life at India’s largest courthouse, the Allahabad High Court. It tells a tale of extreme delay, extraordinary inefficiency, and basic injustice stemming from a lethal combination of judicial vacancies, outdated filing systems, and lax protocols for advancing cases to resolution. Among the facts presented in the article:

  • Nearly 45% of judicial positions on the court are unfilled, due in large part to an ongoing battle between the judiciary and the other branches of government about the most appropriate methods for judicial selection.
  • On average, it takes nearly four years to adjudicate a simple commercial dispute in India — twice as long as in Brazil and more than three times as long as in the United States.
  • More than 86% of high court cases in India take 10-15 years to adjudicate.  Fewer than 5% are resolved in less than five years.
  • The Allahabad High Court receives nearly 1,000 new cases every day.  Almost half are filed by the government.  Judges on the court even have a name for newly filed cases that have not even been looked at yet — “backlog fresh.”
  • It is so unpredictable which cases will be called on any given day that one lawyer profiled has associates spread out across all the courtrooms to track if — and when — any of his 34 open lawsuits on the court’s calendar might be taken up by a judge.
  • Even though rural litigants often have to travel a whole day to appear in court, it is commonplace that their cases will not be called and another day will be wasted.
  • The system encourages delay by allowing lawyers to file an “illness slip” to postpone a hearing, whether or not they are actually sick.
  • Case records are badly misfiled–piled on floors and chairs, and intermingled by year.  In the story, a worker searched eight hours for files for the next day’s cases, and was still missing 17 of 65 by day’s end.

This is a jaw-dropping account, the paragon of “justice delayed is justice denied.” What can we make of it?

Continue reading “A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system”

Federal Judicial Center unveils enhanced database of historical docket data

The Federal Judicial Center has updated and enhanced its interactive database on federal case filings, covering civil and criminal cases from 1970 to the present, appeals from 1971 to the present, and bankruptcy filings from 2008 to the present.  This is undoubtedly a valuable asset for court researchers.

Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access

For the past five years, Texas’s Office of Court Administration has worked to develop a statewide online database of court filings. The database, called re:SearchTX, covers all 254 counties in the state and is intended to provide a unified, centralized system for access to court filings, similar to the PACER system used by the federal courts. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has advocated for the new system, noting in particular its ability more quickly and inexpensively to self-represented litigants.

But a smooth launch of re:SearchTX has been stymied by the local courts themselves. And now a bill has been filed in the state House that would allow individual counties to opt out of the system, radically weakening its utility.

Continue reading “Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access”