Judiciary seeks to join modern era with $164m bond bill
When I recently sought a public document from a state court, the clerk asked me to request it by fax. In 2022, who operates via fax?
Reporters are not alone in their woes with the court’s antiquated technology. Many courthouses do not have wi-fi, even for employees who move between their desks and a courtroom. Judges work from paper case files, so motions must be printed and brought to court.
With the House passage Thursday of a $164 million bond bill for information technology at the judiciary, there is finally a glimmer of hope that the courts may join the 21st century.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd testified at a legislative hearing last March that the bond bill has the potential “to transform and modernize” the courts and “improve the experience for all who use and work in them.”
The bill includes $94 million to create “digital courthouses and courtrooms,” $35 million for courthouse security, and $35 million to modernize administrative operations. Policy changes include letting a court seal be printed electronically, authorizing electronic signatures on documents, and considering electronic documents equal to paper documents.
A presentation prepared by the court in support of a similar bond bill in 2020, which was derailed by COVID, lays out how the court hopes to use the money. The goal is to create a digital courthouse, where all documents can be created and managed electronically by litigants, attorneys, and staff.
According to written testimony by Trial Court Administrator John Bello, submitted to the Joint Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets last March, the pandemic forced the courts to improve their technology. There is now some electronic filing for documents in six of seven court departments. People can pay fines and fees online. The court can deliver documents online, replacing what had been a paper mail system.
But court Chief Information Officer Steven Duncan said in his presentation at the March hearing that e-filed documents must still be printed by a clerk and added to a paper file, then a clerk manually updates the court information system and creates a paper docket. A deputy court administrator quoted in Duncan’s presentation described it as “e-collecting, not e-filing.”
Trial Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke said in testimony that from a judge’s perspective, the courts are still very much a paper-based system. ‘While we have made great strides setting e-Filing into place so that attorneys and self-represented litigants can file case-related documents electronically, it is all for naught if the case file must still be printed out and brought physically into the courtroom,” Locke said. Locke said letting judges access electronic files will free clerks up from printing and compiling. It will allow real-time docketing, so parties can see judicial decisions quickly.
Updating court systems could save trips to the courthouse. A 2017 survey of courthouse users found that 11 percent came to file paperwork, 4 percent to make payments, 5 percent to search records, and 3 percent to get information – activities that could potentially be done online.
On the security side, the money would go toward physical security and cybersecurity. The operations money would go toward making the courts operate more efficiently, including upgrading bandwidth, improving employee remote access, and installing an energy management system.
Lawmakers in 2018 required the administration to create a new data tracking system to connect all elements of the criminal justice system, but that project has been slow to start. Court officials hope to ultimately replace the entire MassCourts information management system, but that would require additional money and not happen until 2028. Some of the simpler initiatives in this bond bill – like installing wi-fi – could occur as soon as 2023.
More bad news at the T: An Orange Line train crossing a bridge across the Mystic River caught fire when a metal plate on the underside of the first car fell off and the car came in contact with the electrified third rail. None of the 200 passengers was injured, but some of those in the first car kicked windows out and jumped down to the track and one jumped off the bridge into the water.
– The latest incident at the T dealt another blow to the transit authority’s safety credibility. Rick Dimino, the president of the business group A Better City, said the T is in worst shape now than it was during snowmageddon in 2015, when the subway system shut down completely for several days.
– Gov. Charlie Baker didn’t dismiss the notion of shutting down the MBTA and rolling its functions into the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “That’s certainly a conversation worth having,” he said on GBH’s Greater Boston radio show. Read more.
House passes gun bill: The Massachusetts House tightened gun licensing standards in response to a US Supreme Court decision by tacking on the changes as an amendment to a bond bill. The Gun Owners Action League said it didn’t get a heads up on the surprise move. Read more.
Climate change bill headed to governor: The Legislature took some shortcuts to approve an energy/climate change bill that was portrayed as a measure to make Massachusetts the Saudi Arabia of wind, promote the adoption of zero emissions vehicles, and allow 10 communities to go fossil-fuel free for new construction. Check out the bill, which is now going to the governor. Read more.
No new prisons: Lawmakers pass a moratorium on new prison construction or expansion. Read more.
Fossil-free heat: Stephen Woerner, president of National Grid New England, outlines the company’s vision for what he calls fossil-free heat. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
The Senate, in a bond bill, approves money for a ferry to shuttle people to Long Island, where Boston hopes to open a recovery campus for people with addiction, amid a debate between Boston and Quincy over whether to rebuild a bridge or use a ferry to access the island. (Patriot Ledger)
House Speaker Ron Mariano says House and Senate negotiators are still far apart on sports betting legislation. (MassLive)
Eugene F. Rivers III asks why Boston’s Black leadership is largely silent on violence in the black community. (Boston Globe)
Massachusetts reports another 30 cases of monkeypox, bringing the total in the state to 79 since May. (MassLive)
COVID cases jumped 24 percent over the last week, as the contagious BA.5 variant spreads. (Boston Herald)
President Biden tests positive for COVID, a day after visiting Massachusetts. (Washington Post)
Testimony before the Jan. 6 committee reveals that President Trump chose not to act for 187 minutes while the mob storming the Capitol grew violent, and remained focused on overturning the election. (Washington Post)
Jynai McDonald, who is challenging State Rep. Bud Williams in the Democratic primary, files a complaint with the FCC alleging the Springfield Technical Community College violated federal rules by giving Williams a weekly radio show during the campaign without giving her equal air time. (MassLive)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey campaigns in North Adams and says she won’t forget the needs of the Berkshires if she is elected. (Berkshire Eagle)
Housing rental prices in Worcester increased 50 percent over the past year. (Telegram & Gazette)
Dartmouth College chooses its first female president, Sian Leah Beilock. (Boston Globe)
Sasaki unveils the final design for Copley Square. (Boston Globe)
Riders describe tears, prayers, smoke, and people jumping out of windows in the Orange Line train that caught fire.. (Boston Herald) WBZ-TV tracks down the woman who jumped into the Mystic River and swam away, who said she felt safer in the water. (CBS News)ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT
A new study indicates nearly 5 percent of the deaths in Massachusetts are caused by air pollution. (WBUR)