Judge plays leading role on State Bar's Technology Committee

By Frank Weir

Legal News

As chair of the State Bar's Technology Committee component of the Judicial Cross Roads Task Force, Washtenaw County 14A District Court Judge Kirk Tabbey must attempt to look into a crystal ball of his own making.

And he acknowledges the pace of technological change is exponential, making prediction all the more difficult.

"We are dealing with general concepts since you can't restrict yourself to something that is so easily outdated," he said recently.

"So, for instance, one of the things we are looking at is getting to a point where courts would be paperless. The savings and increase in efficiency would be significant if we could move to electronic data only.

"So what do we need to get there? Access to electronic data and its archiving are two key concepts to consider. Imaging, online systems for working with electronic documents and data, phone access, remote access, all of these have to be analyzed."

As Janet Welch mentioned last spring at the Washtenaw County Bench Bar Conference, Tabbey's Technology Committee is one of four looking at what the future might hold for Michigan's court system.

The other committees are, Court Structures and Resources; Access to Justice; and Business Impact.

The idea is to develop a host of recommendations for legislation that will be presented to the state's legislators in late summer or early fall of this year. The State Bar believes that a proactive approach is essential to prevent change going in unpredictable directions to the detriment of the judiciary.

"This begins with the realization by the State Bar of Michigan that judges were being attacked on a number of fronts," Tabbey noted.

"It is in the best interests of lawyers and litigants to have highly qualified people wanting to be involved in the judiciary. Compensation is a serious component. Judges salaries, for example, have lost 28 percent of buying power in the last eight years without any pay increases.

"This goes far beyond concern over pay and attracting good people though. Under our Constitution, an independent judiciary is an essential mandate and the bar became increasingly concerned that an independent judiciary was under attack.

"The bar felt that it was essential that an effort be mounted to help the judiciary maintain its resources and remain an independent force, even in the face of tremendous economic upheaval."

During the State Bar presidency of Edward Pappas, the Reform Michigan Government Now ballot proposal came to a head. It proposed sweeping changes of all three branches of government including a proposal to cut two justices from the state's Supreme Court.

Although the ballot proposal was challenged in court and failed, Pappas and the State Bar saw the need for the judiciary to become proactive, Tabbey explained.

"As the Task Force came together, the bar recognized that it needed to do more than fight to maintain the judiciary, it needed to reinvent it for the future and that's when the effort really took off."

In the Technology Committee's final report, it identified the scope of its inquiry.

"The task of the Technology Committee is to determine how Michigan can implement an integrated and cost effective court information system in the light of the economic challenges and transformational changes underway in the state.

"The task requires that the committee comprehensively review current and anticipated technology in Michigan's courts, and evaluate the potential for savings and improved service through investment in technology."

Tabbey said the committee has analyzed the court's computer information systems and formed the following goals:

--Reduce human error and secure private data from public data, while achieving greater data integrity and protect privacy in non-public data.

--Guarantee indigent access with document imaging and electronic access, while controlling bulk data processing that generates cost savings/revenue through enhanced data delivery.

--Provide a single, robust statewide case management system that will serve as the foundation for uniform court e-filing; link courts with the law enforcement system through video conferencing; video jail arraignments; increase remote testimony and web training, and; enhance courtroom presentation and recording technology for more efficient and effective creation of the record for trials/appeals.

To achieve these ends, the committee has also linked with the Michigan Supreme Court Technology Advisory Group and its Access to Court Records subcommittee, the SCAO E-Filing advisory group, and the Imaging Work Group, to examine the redrafting and revision of statutes and court rules and to review new digital imaging standards.

The committee's recommendations to the Task Force have been included with the three other committee's recommendations which were submitted June 10th, Tabbey said.

"Reinventing our case management system offers a tremendous potential for economic savings. We'll be able to do all sorts of things. Judges and administrators would no longer have to write up manual reports; I could access certain records instantly, if I want to know what the courts are doing about fines, costs and fees. I'll no longer have to do that manually, court by court.

"It requires an ongoing exploration of balancing privacy interests, but it can be accomplished."

Tabbey foresees greater involvement of the Web as well.

"14A-2 will be the first in the county to have a Web based video conferencing system. Eventually this will be a part of the future of courtroom practice. I'll be able to have a prisoner here on a civil matter via video web hookup. I'll be able to talk to a forensics team in a crime lab. There are many uses for a web connection in the courtroom."

Tabbey stated that his involvement in the Task force is "very humbling and overwhelming. I spend 10 to 20 hours a week in the evenings and on the weekends working on this. It's a daunting task" he said.

Published: Tue, Aug 3, 2010