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March 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Appellate Courts Go Live With CM/ECF

Some day in the not-too-distant future, locating and reading a brief filed in a federal appellate case will become as easy as finding an appeals court opinion. And electronic appellate briefs will feature hyperlinks to lower court rulings, statutes, regulations, and other cited materials.

"Judges generally are excited about having attorneys file briefs that contain hyperlinks to citations,” said Gary Bowden, chief of the Administrative Office’s Appellate Court and Circuit Administration Division. “And through PACER (the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system) these briefs will be available to everyone."

Until late last year, 10 of the 12 regional appellate courts were using an antiquated system of receiving, storing and tracking their cases, a system that at age 20 was long overdue for retirement.

The St. Louis-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit took a giant step in December when it became the first of those 10 courts to go live with Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF). The rest are to follow by the end of 2007.

"It’s a complete change in the way we do business,” said 8th Circuit Clerk of Court Michael Gans. “We had to rethink all procedural strategies, and spent months training people and testing systems. Our staff worked in concert with AO people in Washington and San Antonio."

How did it work? "I think it’s gone very well," Gans reported. "The first few days were a challenge but we have not fallen behind in our work. Defining operational issues and quality control is an ongoing process."

Nearly all federal district and bankruptcy courts have had a head-start in using CM/ECF. Nationwide, nearly 27 million cases are on CM/ECF systems that provide case file documents in electronic format and accept filings over the Internet.

Most district and bankruptcy courts with CM/ECF accept electronic filings, and more than 250,000 lawyers and others have filed documents over the Internet to date. The 8th Circuit court, which until December had been making do with the aged Appellate Information Management System (AIMS), started with CM only, but hopes to begin accepting electronic filings soon.

The court is working with the AO’s Systems Deployment and Support Division in San Antonio to develop online electronic training for attorneys and paralegals.

Electronic filing likely will be offered by most appellate courts about six months after a court goes live on this new CM system, Bowden said. Periodic general enhancements will be driven by internal and external feedback, he added.

Among the other regional appellate courts, only those for the 2nd and 11th Circuits have legacy systems newer than AIMS. Those two courts are expected to make the CM/ECF conversion, but it probably will not occur until sometime in 2008.

Also going live in December was the Denver-based Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the 10th Circuit. "The majority of us in my office didn’t sleep well the week before we went live. We were really nervous because, despite the months of planning and testing, it is quite a leap of faith," said BAP Clerk Barbara Schermerhorn.

Bowden said a workshop held in San Antonio in the spring of 2005 served as a CM/ECF kickoff for appellate courts, but that two additional update releases were delivered in 2006 to meet all promised functionality.

"All courts have been dedicating significant resources to implementation for the past 12 to 18 months, and we are beginning to see courts use the new CM system," he said. "The appellate court data conversion, a major task considering there is nearly 20 years of data, has had to be more customized than for the district and bankruptcy courts," he said. "The court staff have been very active in testing the system, and have been a great help to our staff in D.C. and in Phoenix."

The Judicial Conference has approved a set of model local rules for e-filing, which the individual courts can modify to fit their specific needs. Courts are likely to soon begin seeking comment on proposed new electronic filing rules.