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September 2010

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


"Herculean Effort" to Create Next Generation of CM/ECF Makes Progress

Hard work and a deliberative, inclusive process is helping ensure that the federal Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files system (CM/ECF), already coveted by other courts worldwide, will shine even brighter in its next generation.

“This project involves all interested groups: judges and clerks at all court levels, attorney filers, probation and pretrial services offices, as well as other parts of the Judiciary,” said Judge Julie Robinson (D. Kan.), who chairs both the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM) and its Next Generation subcommittee.

“It is a herculean effort… a process that engages both those with technical expertise and those with experiential insight to develop a product that is designed to satisfy our functional requirements and our business processes,” she said.

The Administrative Office (AO) began planning for the next generation of case management not long after CM/ECF was fully deployed. “Our appellate, district, and bankruptcy program divisions in the Office of Court Administration (OCA), working with OCA’s Technology Division, began a coordinated and comprehensive effort to define future requirements in 2009,” said Noel Augustyn, an executive sponsor for the project, along with Peter McCabe in the AO’s Office of Judges Programs and Howard Grandier in the Office of Information Technology.

Begun with a 1996 prototype, CM/ECF revolutionized federal court access by essentially opening the clerk of court’s office seven days a week, 24 hours a day to everyone—attorneys filing a case from their offices, judges accessing case files remotely, and members of the public viewing court documents from home.

The Next Generation effort is well along in its initial phase. Five groups are gathering functional requirements focusing, respectively, on clerk’s offices in district and bankruptcy courts, judges’ chambers in district and bankruptcy courts, and additional stakeholders who include CM/ECF users from within and outside the Judiciary.

Simultaneously underway was a software architecture study (recently completed) of the options for the underlying technology to support the new system. And for the 12 regional appellate courts, AO staff members are updating existing functional requirements and submitting them for review by all appellate court offices.

Throughout the Judiciary, there has been much to do. The bankruptcy clerks’ office functional requirements group estimates that, since October 2008, each of its 21 members has worked 640 hours on the Next Generation project. A CM/ECF Leadership Team comprised of about 30 AO staff members from offices with a stake in the project, meets every other week to discuss the case management system and its Next Generation.

“Enhanced case management, calendaring, quality control, and integration with other software applications are some of the benefits that clerks’ offices could enjoy with the Next Generation application,” said Chief Deputy Clerk Dan McAllister in the Northern District of New York, who co-chairs the district court clerk’s office functional requirements group with Operations Administrator Leigh Kinzer in the District of Kansas.

In all, more than 140 federal judges and court staffers from across the nation and numerous AO employees are involved. They have been aided by, to date, more than 4,800 comments received from other federal court personnel about the groups’ proposed business templates and functional requirements.

The level of cooperation has drawn praise. “The degree of communication between the AO and the court community is phenomenal,” said Magistrate Judge Karen Klein (D. ND), a member of the Committee on Information Technology who serves on the Next Generation Project Steering Group. “The AO has developed a project structure that incorporates input from judges, clerks, Information Technology managers, and others at each step and each level of the process. Conversely, the AO has kept the participants well informed about the process.”

Judge John Tunheim (D. Minn.), co-chair of the district court chambers functional requirements group, said, “The feedback and responses we have had from judges and chambers staff have far exceeded our expectations.” His co-chair, Magistrate Judge Timothy Hillman (D. MA), added: “The entire court community is actively engaged in this process.”

The additional stakeholders functional requirements group includes members who represent, among others, bankruptcy administrators, federal public defenders, probation and pretrial services officers, the Department of Justice, and the American Bar Association.

“We have identified more than 60 discrete groups of external users of CM/ECF with whom we plan to interact, and we have work plans already in place for about half of them,” said Bankruptcy Judge Rich Leonard (E.D. NC), who chairs the additional stakeholders group.

“Our efforts have been met by both enormous appreciation that we are asking for input and any number of creative suggestions that we are feeding back into the process.”

Improvements that flow from those creative suggestions eventually will benefit the Judiciary’s popular Public Access to Court Electronic Records service, which provides hundreds of thousands of users with remote, read-only access to documents in CM/ECF.

As envisioned, Next Generation will allow for integration and communication of data across the Judiciary for broad search functionality. The system will share public case information freely throughout the court system, and efficiency will be increased by eliminating redundancies in data entry for pretrial services, probation, and clerks’ offices.

As functional requirements are being gathered and assessed, a synchronization effort is underway to review requirements that overlap or are duplicated within a court type (for example, within judicial chambers and the clerk’s office) or across two or more court types. Redundant elements might be merged into a new single requirement.

The synchronization process also will address inconsistencies among requirements and identify gaps.

A project steering group, which is coordinating the functional requirements gathering phase, ultimately will review the synchronization effort as well. This first phase is expected to continue through February 2012, before Phase II—design, development, testing, and implementation—begins.

“More important than a firm deadline, however, is that we ensure that we identify all functional requirements, identify and address all affected policies and policy issues, and incorporate best practices where appropriate,” Robinson said. “The current CM/ECF system is not broken. We have the benefit of time to develop the new system unencumbered by any immediate crises or needs.”