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.