CHEYENNE – Wyoming courts need money in order to ramp up digitizing efforts to bring the state’s courts into the 21st century, Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Davis emphasized during his State of the Judiciary speech Monday morning at the state Capitol.
Monday marked the first day of the 65th Wyoming Legislature’s budget session, and lawmakers descended on the Capitol to decide the state’s fiscal future.
In this future, Davis emphasized the importance of remembering the judicial branch. Currently, the Wyoming Supreme Court has an electronic filing system for court cases, but it’s 12 years old. It’s so old, Davis said, the system no longer has updates available and needs to be replaced.
“We may have to hold our breath and pray it continues to work for a while until the economy improves,” Davis said. “In a worst-case, total-failure scenario, I have to wonder what a high-tech company would think moving to the state whose appellate court has been, but is no longer, digital.”
Making the transition to a digital court system can be a little easier because all district courts operate on the same electronic case management system. So making the transition would only mean moving from one system to another.
Keeping this in mind, Davis said a digital court also means that people would have access to electronic files, electronic court notes on proceedings, case management tools for judges and even statistical information on court cases.
Currently, in order to file a court document, people have to print out a copy of whatever they would like to file, have the clerk of court scan the copy and then it is placed into the electronic court file. The electronic court file also isn’t available for people to access outside of the courthouse, and in order for people to get copies of court documents, they have to go to court and print out the documents they would like.
“It is a time that our citizens, like the citizens of other states, need and deserve digital courts that is the industry standard,” Davis said. “Digital courts means increased transparency, efficiency and ease of use for citizens, lawyers and judges.”
Davis also hinted in his speech that he anticipates a selection of the digital court system for Wyoming by the end of the month; this includes chancery courts, as well as district courts.
In order to help fund this digitization, an increase in court filing fees was proposed, which Davis said he supports. The filing fee would be $40, which is about a $10 to $15 increase, depending on the type of case.
“I do have significant concerns about increasing the fees,” Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said. “We have also increased the court filing fees, as well – that money goes to the counties. All of these costs are necessary in order to maintain the operations of the court. However, I do think we need to be mindful that these costs are borne by people and businesses of Wyoming that need justice, that need access to courts, and, at times, these fees are becoming excessive and prohibitive to individuals being able to access the courts.”
Nethercott chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and said as a practicing attorney herself, this is an area that is very important to her.
She added that court digitization has been a conversation in the state for the past 20 years, and recently it’s become more frustrating because of the failure to have a system in place.
Though even with the added funds from a court fee increase, there still won’t be enough money to fund courtroom technology upgrades such as video displays in courtrooms like other courts have. A past study that was commissioned rated Wyoming’s courtroom technology at a two or three out of 10 – meaning some courtrooms didn’t even have adequate audio.
Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said she thinks lawmakers will be able to find the money to make this happen because people have to be able to trust the courts. She said Davis struck the right “warning bell” tone to let lawmakers know what might happen down the line if these issues don’t get addressed.
Having an electronic court system also will aid in judicial efficiency, Davis said. Currently there are about 150,000 court filings yearly in Wyoming, as well as the need for four more district court judges.
The court digitization also would give judges tools to help manage their cases. For instance, Davis said if someone is approaching their 180-day speedy trial deadline, the digital system has the ability to give the judge an alert.
“I simply want to remind everyone once again that there are citizens using our trial courtrooms every day. There is no other place to go for justice,” Davis said. “For them, their cases, however mundane they might seem to an outsider, are the most important ones in the system, and our judges do treat them as if all were of equal and critical importance.”
At the current budget funding levels, Davis said the courts won’t be able to advance technologically. He said the courts will be anywhere from $7 million to $10 million short of making sure Wyoming courtrooms stay modern and functional.