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December 1998

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


Grants Increase Public Access to Court Records

In fiscal year 1998, five districts received grants for projects that will increase public access to electronic court records. The grants were supplied through a research and development grants program guided by the Electronic Public Access (EPA) Working Group. The initiative is part of the Administrative Office's efforts to promote innovative, locally developed technology applications in the courts. In evaluating requests for EPA grants, the EPA Working Group looks for, among other criteria, court programs that address major problems, use technology in innovative ways, improve public access to court information, and offer the greatest possibility for national application. The EPA Working Group, an ad hoc advisory group whose members are drawn from the courts, provides advice to the AO on issues concerning public access to electronic court records and develops recommendations to the Judicial Conference on such matters.

The following courts received EPA program grants in FY98. Here is how they plan to use the funds.

District of Wyoming, District Court

According to Systems Analyst Elizabeth Conley, the District of Wyoming came up with the idea of a public access to historical court records system because finding records is a time-consuming and inefficient task. The public might have to search microfiche, card, and computer files just to locate a record. Then staff had to pull books to produce the actual docket and make copies. The court's EPA grant will make all docket sheets available electronically. The old docket sheets will be scanned and interfaced with the court's locally developed party/case index. This also will give access to docket sheets, for the first time, to the Casper, Wyoming, office where one of the three Wyoming district court judges sits.

District of South Carolina, Bankruptcy and District Courts

Public access to the clerk's office in the district court for the District of South Carolina was up a flight of stairs—not the most convenient location for sight-impaired visitors or visitors in wheelchairs, who had to take a circuitous route for access. The district has proposed a public access kiosk in the main office of each court to accommodate the public, the bar, and court personnel, including those with visual and hearing impairments. With such user-friendly technology as touch screen monitors, Braille keyboards and voice recognition commands, the kiosk will be a gateway to court information for both the district and bankruptcy courts.

District of New Mexico, District Court

Over 50 court forms will soon be on the Internet in the District of New Mexico where law clerks, attorneys, law firms or chambers staff can fill them out electronically and send them in. According to Robert March, clerk of court for the District of New Mexico, anyone who wants to file a form or request information will be able to find it on the court's web site. That will save time and legwork for the public, and a lot of questions for court staff. Internet access will allow rapid updating of forms and cut down on printing and inventory. The development would include the production of blank forms as well as templates, that can be used to complete the forms. And while the forms will be accessible from any personal computer, the system also will be available at public access terminals within the court for members of the public who do not have Internet access.

Western District of New York, District Court

Chief Deputy Clerk Jeanne Spampata, in the Western District of New York, was researching her family tree not long ago, a task that involved searching through nearly 50,000 naturali- zation cards by hand. Convinced there had to be an easier way, she proposed the development of an automated naturalization information system for her district. The court plans to use the EPA grant to develop an indexed database application which will include images of the original naturalization records, in some cases right down to the signature of the applicant, from the years 1926 through 1991. The information, according to Spampata, will be put on CD-ROMs and given to public libraries, where the public can easily search and review naturalization information. The development of this system will save the court approximately 20 hours per month of deputy clerk's time. The district hopes to have the project completed in time to celebrate its 100th anniversary in the year 2000.

District of Puerto Rico, District Court

The District of Puerto Rico proposal is to develop a PC-based electronic calendar system where users are able to access proceeding information on their own by receiving electronic notification or by accessing a device that will provide them with such information. This will replace the hard copy calendar. Meeting this objective will ensure that the needs of the public, members of the bar, federal agencies, and the clerk's office will continue to be met in a more timely and up-to-date manner. It will provide hard-copy document information, automatically, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to a caller equipped with a touch-tone phone or any GROUP III facsimile machine. Also, TV monitors will be placed in the courthouse to provide daily up-to-date information on the locations of the proceedings for the day.

Judicial Vacancies & Confirmations in the 105th Congress

During the second session of the 105th Congress, the Senate confirmed 65 federal judges: 13 circuit judges, two to the Court of International Trade, and 50 district courts judges. This brought the number of judges confirmed in both sessions of the 105th Congress to a total of 101, compared to the 75 judges confirmed in the 104th Congress. As he completes six years in office, President Clinton has seen the Senate confirm 305 of the judges he nominated. By comparison, President Reagan, another two-term president, in eight years appointed a total of 389 judges, confirmed between 1981 and 1988.

As of December 1, 1998, there were 55 vacancies, 16 in the courts of appeals, 38 in the district courts, and one on the Court of International Trade. There are no nominations pending because all nominations are returned to the White House at the end of a Congress, and there will be no opportunity to reduce the number of vacancies until the 106th Congress begins next year.