Making a Case for Access

Unlike the many government agencies that have found the World Wide Web to

be a powerful tool for distributing information, the courts, the most tradition-bound

sector of government, have made slow progress in moving to the Internet.

But as the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County has found, the

potential audience for online information is often waiting there when the

courts finally arrive.

Before putting its 20 million records onto the Web in 1997, people who wanted

access to Superior Court records had to go to the court and wait in line

to use slow terminals hooked into a Groupe Bull HN Information Systems mainframe.

Those records — and much more — are now available to Maricopa County's

2.7 million residents and others through the court's expansive Web site.

And that Web site is now getting up to 80,000 hits a day.

That activity has surprised court officials. Information hounds such

as the press and private investigators have been frequent visitors to the

court's Web site, along with the general public. But it's the appearance

of organizations such as businesses, not particularly heavy users of the

old system, which has convinced the court it's on the right track.

The court is developing online services beyond simple records access,

such as a self-service center for people who want to represent themselves

in cases, and a system by which battered women can apply for protection

orders without leaving the security of shelters.

"People are increasingly looking for more access to these kinds of services

from their homes," said Andy Cicchillo, program manager of Web development

for the court. "If money were no object, we would be going now to such things

as imaging systems so that people could call up the actual case dockets.

We've also had requests for people to be able to file documents online,

that sort of thing."

It took a champion to get things started. The presiding judge at the

court was a big supporter of using technology to make things more accessible

to the public, Cicchillo said. It was when the court and Groupe Bull started

talking about ways to make the mainframe system more open that the possibility

of using the Web came up.

"We've had a fairly close relationship [with the court], and we've talked

continually during that time about what they are trying to accomplish,"

said Jack Ginsburg, vice president of Groupe Bull's public-sector business

unit. "It's when they talked about wanting to open the system up more to

the public that we started to talk to them about Web-enabling the mainframe."

That might have sparked some early doubts because mainframes, known

more as the proprietary core for data-crunching systems, had been considered

incompatible with the open, distributed world of the Web. Conventional scenarios

required expensive conversion of mainframe data for use in client/server

environments before that data could be used on the Web.

In practice, at least at the Maricopa court, that wasn't needed. Groupe

Bull and the court designed a relatively simple program to pull data in

the mainframe and transfer it to users' PCs. The program used Java, a programming

language designed specifically for the Internet. That initial project was

completed for what Cicchillo pegged at well under $40,000, and provided

justification for Groupe Bull.

"It confirmed what we said all along we could do with a mainframe," Ginsburg

said. "What we did was not really a new development, but it proved that

we had the ability [to enable mainframe customers] to electronically communicate

with whoever they wanted to."

Since then, the system has been improved even further by using Microsoft

Corp. ActiveX controls to allow the court's two dual-processor Dell Computer

Corp. Web servers to directly access the mainframe data and make it available

to PCs. Taking the Java program out of the loop boosted system performance

"a hundred fold," according to Cicchillo, because the Java program had to

be downloaded by the servers to users' PCs each time a query was made.

Improving services to the public is the goal of all of this, of course,

but those who work at the court have seen more immediate benefits.

"We've had far fewer phone calls and visits by people looking for information,

and that's allowed the staff to focus more on their day-to-day activities,"

said Gordon Griller, the court administrator.

"People who do need to come to the court also tend to appear at the

right location, because now calendar information is printed on the Web site.

Lawyers can check that an appearance before a judge is actually happening

at the time and in the court it was scheduled for previously," he said.

Crime victims also can track the appearances defendants if they want

to be present for proceedings, he said. "The only way they could do that

before was to come down to the court and find their way through the maze

that this place is to get to the records."

The success of the court's Web site is pushing people to be more proactive,

Griller said, building on services that are commonplace in the court itself.

It's an everyday event, for example, for potential jurors to be called

on the phone and told to come to the courthouse, where they can be empaneled.

The court is exploring whether the Internet could be used to notify people

to appear for jury service. People might use the Internet to request postponement

of jury duty and get an answer back almost immediately, instead of the two-to-three weeks it can take now.

And seeing what the Web site has done is sparking creative notions of

what else might be possible.

Self-litigating cases might be more open, and even advisable, to more

people if the logistics of finding the right forms to file, where to file

them and what language to use was not so daunting. The court is building

a Web-based self-help center where people can find this information online,

along with contact information for lawyers and mediators who offer help

for those who choose to represent themselves.

The court also is prototyping a service where women in shelters can

get a declaration of protection without having to come to the court. A PC

would be set up in each shelter, along with a video camera, microphone and

fax, so the court official could conduct an interview via the Web. That

way, emergency orders of protection could be provided at any time.

One major problem is safeguarding privacy, Cicchillo said. At the moment,

information such as Social Security numbers that are available in public

records through the Superior Court's terminals are also available through

the Web. There's debate over whether such information should be available


A committee is being convened to look into that, and a policy on privacy

should be available by the end of April, he said.

Courts going online "is absolutely an accelerating trend," according

to James Turner, executive director of Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, an organization

of Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Legal Reform. "It's also a necessary

trend to make public access to court documents easier, particularly given

the proliferation of the Internet and PCs among lawyers and the public."

But court materials tend to be voluminous, he said. Therefore, making

them electronically accessible is not trivial. Given that courts tend to

lag behind the technology curve by as much as seven years, it's still a

frontier activity, he said, which means Maricopa County likely will remain

the benchmark for Web-bound courts for some time.

— Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore.


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