Kansas City, Mo. — Moving a state's courts into the online, high-tech world is fairly straightforward. All it takes is money, time, and the right people and equipment.
But that's only half the task the nation's state courts are confronting. The rest -- for which no technical manuals or prewritten programs exist -- consists of anticipating and addressing the perplexing legal issues that technology can create.
Last week, hundreds of judges and other legal personnel who came to Kansas City for a national conference on court technology spent three days tussling with such issues. A sampling:
- If a state's online court database mistakenly lists someone as having a felony conviction, is anyone responsible if an employer then denies the person a job? And even if the record is fixed, is the person frozen in cyberspace as guilty forever?
- Should divorce records be posted online? On the other hand, why not? And who decides?
- Will someone who's been eluding a stalker avoid going to court over, say, a small contract dispute because it will mean an automatic presence in cyberspace?
- If a crime victim never comes to court but testifies via a live video hookup, is the defendant's constitutional right to confront the accuser fulfilled?
Few such questions were definitively answered during the National Center for State Courts' eighth Court Technology Conference. But the 2,500 participants went home with some fresh guidance and plenty of food for thought about the pitfalls -- and promises -- of adapting state courts to high-speed communications.
"Unfortunately, the legal system works at a slightly slower pace," said Jim McMillan, a technology expert with the Williamsburg, Va.-based national center.
Some of the questions, such as remote-video testimony in criminal cases, must be answered state-by-state as the situation presents itself. A few hundred courtrooms around the country now have the technology, and appeals from trials held in them are reaching higher courts.
Other issues require states to make policy decisions as they put their trial court records online.
To assist them, chief justices and court administrators from around the country have developed model guidelines on what to post, what to keep only on paper and what should still be seen only by court personnel, lawyers, and other parties such as law enforcement officers or social workers.
The model's recommendations include keeping Social Security numbers off the Internet; making some records available only at a courthouse rather than online; and leaving the addresses of domestic violence victims out of online records.
Missouri, which began connecting all of its courts and putting some records online years ago, is among the few states that adopted their own rules. The state's award-winning "Case.net" Web site now contains searchable records from 33 of the 45 trial-level judicial circuits.
Searching the site yields selected facts on each case, such as the parties' names, their birthdays (to distinguish them from people with the same name), type of case, important dates and final disposition.
Face to face
But some details, although they are public information, must still be viewed the old-fashioned way, at the court clerk's office. That's a nod to reality: Personal information about a minor child, for example, will be seen by far fewer people at the courthouse than if it were posted on the Web.
"The law says that if you go into a courthouse and request a public document, the clerks are required to give that out. But if something is put online, everyone in the whole world can go query it," said Nancy Griggs, court services director in Missouri's Office of State Courts Administrator.
In some circumstances, an online court record can be more than simply embarrassing; it could cost someone a potential job. Some employers won't hire convicted felons, so Missouri now deletes a felony charge from the posted record once a person has been acquitted or the charge has been dropped.
"People with no felony convictions were being denied jobs because employers didn't read the entire record and just saw the charges," Griggs said. "They didn't keep reading and see that the person was never convicted."