Order in the Court: E-Business Brings Order to North Carolina's Highest Court

Can replacing a well-used copier mean better efficiencies and access for the Appellate Courts in North Carolina and their users? The North Carolina Supreme Court (NCSC) believes that it has answered the question with a resounding "yes" by using an e-business technology. The Supreme Court of North Carolina recently implemented a Web-based, digital reprographics solution from IBM to streamline its legal document submission process, reduce printing costs and provide law offices across the entire state with "anytime, anywhere" access to legal information.

"The days of carrying papers to the courthouse to file a document are rapidly drawing to an end," said North Carolina Chief Justice Henry E. Frye. "Today, there are no state appellate courts and few trial courts in the country that allow electronic filing for all documents. Courts, however, need to respond as technology creates new alternatives to how we do business. Increasingly lawyers are relying on electronic and Internet technologies to do their jobs faster, more effectively and more productively. With these new technologies, we improve our printing operations and fundamentally change accessibility, efficiencies and economies of the appellate courts in North Carolina. Over the next five years, I seriously doubt anyone will argue that electronic filing will not or should not be a part of our court system, not only in appellate courts, but in trial courts as well."

The North Carolina judicial system includes two appellate courts: the Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals is a 12-judge court that sits in panels of three judge each. It is also the first line of appeals for most cases tried in North Carolina courts. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, is the state's "court of last resort," with more petitions and fewer appeals made to its seven justices.

The workload for these two courts comes from all cases tried in courts throughout North Carolina's 100 counties. About 2 percent of these cases are sent to the Court of Appeals, roughly translating into 5,000 filings each year. The documentation for these cases ranges in length from briefs that are limited to 35 pages of text, to records that can be several volumes of several hundred pages. Supreme Court filings, which number approximately 600 new cases each year, are accompanied by documents that have no page limits. For example, a death case can be recorded in 40 volumes of transcripts, three volumes of records, and briefs that are several volumes long.

"It's simply a lot of paper," said Christie Cameron, Clerk for the North Carolina Supreme Court. Included among her responsibilities is supervision of the printing department, which prints legal documents -- records, briefs and petitions -- for the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

Burden of Proof

When the printing department receives a document, approximately 20 copies are created, 14 of which are used by the seven justices and their research assistants, and several of which are sent to the attorneys involved in the case. The department receives nearly 250,000 original new pages for processing each year, and the annual total copy volume is roughly 4,800,000 pages.

"In the past," Cameron says, "when cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, we had to find all the papers that were originally filed in the Court of Appeals and reprint them for the Supreme Court." This was a burdensome process, especially considering that the printing department relied heavily on copiers to reproduce these documents.

Digital Appeal

"We were increasingly experiencing copier downtime, and we knew we had to update or replace our technology," Cameron says. "At first we intended to simply replace the copiers. Then, we realized the benefits of scanning capabilities and looked at whether we wanted to scan or just copy. Finally, we evaluated what we could do with our Web site and how it would help the entire judicial system to implement a Web-based document submission and printing process."

To ease the burden on the printing department, the NCSC installed a total IBM print solution comprised of an RS6000 server, two Infoprint 60 duplex printers with finishing features, several PCs and two scanners. The heart of the Court's digital solution is a Lotus Notes Domino 5.0 document library with Web-enabled clients. This online viewing and retrieval capability allows court personnel to publish directly into the library via electronic submission, as well as capture documents scanned from hard copies, and submit print requests for documents selected from the library.

"State lawyers previously filed appeals in writing and mailed them to the Court," Cameron says. "Now, they can log on to the Supreme Court Web site, fill out a form, attach their brief and file it electronically. Once the electronic brief is in our system, it's immediately posted on the Web so our justices, attorneys, law schools and the public at large can access them at any time from any location. Many justices go home to other parts of the state on the weekends; instead of packing up their car with boxes of briefs and records, they can now view them via the Web -- all they need is a laptop. The entire state appellate court system will be fully connected, with easier and faster access to information.

"The decrease in turnaround time can be dramatic. Filing an appeal by mail and having it received and entered by the Court can take nearly a week. With electronic filing, the process essentially occurs in realtime," Cameron says.

"The document is simply reviewed by the clerk's office to make sure it is being appropriately filed," Cameron says. Then, it is ready to be queued and printed. That's a huge time savings for the printing department. No longer do they have to manually scan or copy old documents prior to printing.

Electronic document submission also decreases the number of times that information has to be entered. Previously, clerks received a hard copy of a brief, then re-entered the information into the Court's case management system, causing duplication of effort for the clerks and increasing the likelihood of the wrong data being entered.

"Justices and research assistants can also call up portions of old briefs that have been electronically submitted and print only the sections they need -- again, easier and in less time," Cameron adds. "That's a huge time savings for the printing department. No longer do they have to maually scan or copy old documents prior to printing."

Cameron noted that while it's still too early to quantify the exact benefits of the new system, the Court's prediction is a more streamlined judicial process. The courts are also looking into using the new system to handle electronic fund transfers between offices. Plans call for the continuous enhancement of the solution over time with the eventual goal of providing a "totally digital" court system -- from document submission to the courtroom.

About the Author: Dave Dobson is VP of Global Marketing and Strategy for IBM Printing Systems (Boulder, Colo.).