Ease of access to the federal courts encompasses improvements to the jury experience, greater availability and accessibility of court information, and an improved online presence that increases the public understanding of the federal courts.
Jurors and Juror Utilization
eJuror Program Expands
The Jury Management System (JMS), which enables courts to qualify, summon, manage, and track jurors, offers a web-based self-service component: eJuror. Currently, 89 districts have installed this user-friendly, locally configurable JMS module, and approximately 76 districts are already live on the system. Courts are reporting steady increases in the percentage of jury participants using the online system compared to mailing in forms and communicating by phone. Although most eJuror courts report usage rates around 30-40 percent, some courts report utilization rates as high as 50 percent, and the District of New Hampshire has about 80 percent of potential jurors responding online. Communicating with jurors by email saves postage costs and eliminates unnecessary delays. With eJuror, jurors can go online to complete qualification questionnaires and summons information forms, complete pre-screening questionnaires, query status and reporting information, request excuses and deferments, and complete exit surveys.
Participating courts usually have an eJuror link prominently placed on their websites. To increase convenience, a national directory has been added to the U.S. Courts website. Site visitors who click on the Jury Service page can quickly access a national directory of jury information pages for all 94 federal district courts. The directory provides additional links to eJuror pages for the participating courts, which enables prospective jurors to log directly into the system.
The national average of jurors not selected, serving, or challenged (NSSC) on the first day of jury service was 37.3 percent for the year ended June 30, 2013. This was a 0.3 percent increase from the 37 percent NSSC rate for the previous year. The NSSC percentage increase means additional costs to the Judiciary of approximately $85,054 and an additional 989 potential jurors coming to the courthouse unnecessarily.
A total of 50 districts improved their percentage of jurors NSSC from the previous year. A total of 32 districts achieved the Judicial Conference’s approved utilization goal of an NSSC rate of 30 percent or less.
Public Access to Data and Information
Improving Court Access for Pro Se Litigants
The Judicial Conference Court Administration and Case Management Committee is pursuing several initiatives to improve the public’s access to the courts by assisting courts in managing pro se cases. The Committee will work with AO staff to consider revisions to the attorney admission fund guidelines to clarify how such funds may be used to assist courts in handling pro se litigation. In addition, a District Methods Analysis Working Group will examine pro se civil case management in the courts and identify best practices, which will then be shared with all district courts.
A new feature in the Next Generation of CM/ECF, now being tested in beta courts, will help pro se debtors prepare their bankruptcy case petitions and schedules electronically. Courts will be able to make this new feature available either at the public terminals in clerks’ offices or on the Internet. The module will walk a self-represented debtor through user-friendly screens that solicit information for the forms for voluntary Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 cases. Clerk’s office staff can then electronically upload the petition and schedules to open the case, saving them significant data entry work. A court group defined the module’s requirements and goals, which include making information available to pro se debtors on preparation of the required case opening documents, improving access for debtors located far from a courthouse, reducing the time required to process pro se bankruptcy filings, encouraging debtors to hire attorneys, increasing the quality of the data collected, and making petition data more readily available to Judiciary staff.
Court of International Trade Joins PACER
When it adopted the most recent version of Case Management/Electronic Case Files System software in 2013, the Court of International Trade began its participation in PACER, the public access to court electronic records system. All federal appellate and district courts and the Court of International Trade now make information available to the public using the PACER service.
Assessment of Electronic Public Access (EPA) Program Service
In March 2013, the Judiciary completed a reassessment of the EPA program, using the services of an independent consulting firm. This new appraisal of Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) services measured overall user satisfaction as well as satisfaction with specific changes to search capability, training, and communications that had been made in response to the original 2009-2010 study’s findings. User demographics were verified and expanded, and information was gathered on user interest in alternative fee models, and pricing options. Results show 90 percent of respondents expressed overall satisfaction with PACER, compared to 75 percent in the earlier survey. Users also are significantly more satisfied with the improved search capabilities and expressed satisfaction with PACER’s pricing model.
Court Opinion Pilot Implementation: FDsys Participation
As of October 2013, a project providing free online access to federal court opinions has expanded to include 64 courts. The federal Judiciary and the Government Printing Office partner through the GPO’s Federal Digital System, FDsys, to provide public access to more than 750,000 records, many dating back to 2004.
The Judicial Conference approved national implementation of the project in September 2013, opening participation from the original 29 courts. FDsys currently contains opinions from 8 appellate courts, 20 district courts, and 35 bankruptcy courts. Federal court opinions are one of the most heavily used collections on FDsys, with millions of retrievals each month.
Template Toolbox Customizes Internet Websites for Courts
More than 60 courts are using a growing toolbox of website templates and related resources to build and customize their public-facing websites. Four appellate, 27 district, and 32 bankruptcy court websites are built on the templates. Twenty-one courts are leveraging the cost-savings and efficiencies of the AO’s web-hosting service, which provides full-service administration and delivery of their sites to the public. Another 15 websites are being developed in the hosted environment. The initiative was designed by the Judicial Branch Committee’s Ad Hoc Subcommittee on New Media to ensure that public Judiciary websites provide a similar user experience and include all content required by statute and Conference policy. Recent template enhancements have been made to address court needs and information and to share ideas. A probation and pretrial services template is almost complete and expected to be ready for use by the end of 2013.
Interpreting in the Federal Courts
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Court Interpreting Events for FY 2013
In FY 2013, district courts reported that they used interpreters in 330,607 events, compared to 325,257 events reported in FY 2012. Spanish remains the most-used language for interpreters in the courts and accounted for 96.7 percent of all reported events in 2013, the same percentage as in 2012. Overall, 117 different languages were used in court events during 2013. Other frequently used languages, in order by number of events, were: Mandarin (1,390); Russian (1,128); Korean (807); Cantonese (586); Vietnamese (566); Arabic (554); Portuguese (427); Haitian Creole (405); Romanian (345); and Foochow (314).
Federal Court Interpreter Certification Exam (FCICE) Attracts Record Number
During the 2013 FCICE oral examination cycle, a total of 532 candidates took the exam, during a pilot test of a new examination form and as part of the operational July administration in twelve locations throughout the United States. A total of 59 interpreters were certified as a result of this exam cycle, for an overall pass rate of approximately 11 percent.
The Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. §1827 provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified interpreters. There are three categories of interpreters in federal courts: certified, professionally qualified, and language-skilled interpreters. All staff court interpreters must be federally certified court interpreters.
Improved Communication Via the New JNet
In April 2013, a newly redesigned Judiciary intranet website—JNet—was launched, with a focus on upgrading technology, increasing efficiencies, improving functionality, and increasing usability.
The JNet is a primary information resource for Judiciary employees and is accessed more than 2.5 million times each year. The site offers news, policy, program-related information, and a variety of reference tools, and serves as a gateway to systems used judiciary-wide.
The new JNet includes the following features:
- A revised content structure for easy access to important information, including the ability to personalize the site for individual use;
- A redesigned look and feel—optimized for use on desktop and mobile devices—to enhance the users’ ability to access and to increase appeal;
- Improved currency and accuracy of content;
- Upgraded technology, including a new search tool, making the site more effective to use and offering new communications capabilities;
- New approaches to posting and editing content quickly and accurately; and
- A flexible design and structure to accommodate changing user needs.
Educational Resources for the Classroom
The AO’s national educational outreach program was recognized in 2013 for its unique niche in civics education, when it was invited by the Annenberg Foundation to be one of 10 founders of the national Civics Renewal Network (CRN). CRN is a coalition of the top, non-partisan, non-profit national civics education providers dedicated to developing in 2014 a one-stop website for standards-based civics education; reducing duplication among providers; and sharing best practices. In 2013, CRN planned its 2014 Constitution Day and Citizenship Day event in Washington, D.C.—a call for civics education renewal by all three branches of government.
Other 2013 AO initiatives included forming two national, virtual advisory boards—one for students and one for teachers—to provide input for AO-produced programs and resources. Internal advisors are a national, volunteer network of more than 200 court personnel and federal judges. Using courtroom-ready AO materials, they bring high school students into federal courts to work with judges and attorneys in participatory, realistic trial simulations and jury deliberations. Topics in 2013 included flash mob protests, social media controversies, teens and Miranda issues, and the right to counsel marking the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright.
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High school journalists participated in a courtroom simulation presided over by a federal judge at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
News and Information for the Courts and Public
In FY 2013, the AO produced a number of instructional informational and news videos on topics such as federal court funding, law clerk hiring, bankruptcy, and shared administrative services. Many of these video and web-based projects demonstrated how the AO has introduced mobile technology to cut costs and travel expenses, while still reaching a wide audience.
Staff in the District of New Mexico used an iPad to produce, with AO assistance, a news story on a naturalization ceremony at the historical Aztec ruins in New Mexico. A live webcast of the U.S. Sentencing Commission Washington, DC, Regional Training Seminar, produced by the AO, reached viewers across the country.
The AO also helped the U.S. Court of Federal Claims reach a national audience without leaving their court. The webcast /videoconference linked faculty and students at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Tempe, AZ, and the Chicago-Kent College of Law, in Chicago, IL, with presenters at the National Court Building in Washington, DC, and a moderator in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building video studios.
Pathways to the Bench Video Series
A popular ongoing production is the series of videos sharing the stories of federal judges who have overcome adversity on their journey to the bench.
The ninth video in the “Pathways to the Bench” series produced this year, featured U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson, of Montgomery, Ala., whose childhood polio didn’t keep him from leading an active life, excelling in academics and becoming—at age 33—one of the youngest judges appointed to the federal bench.
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U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson
U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson, of Montgomery, Ala., pushed past the paralysis of childhood polio to live an active life, excel in academics and become – at age 33 – one of the youngest people appointed to the federal bench. He says he has learned, "Always be prepared for the unexpected, because you'll never know when it will hit you."