Keeping the courts tech-savvy

There's a lesson to learn from Mel Bryson's tenure as head of information technology at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts: Not every chief information officer is a technophile.

The soft-spoken native of Utah is a budget expert, not a techie. He is not a member of the CIO Council, which represents executive agencies. And Bryson uses the Clinger-Cohen Act and other legislative mandates as helpful hints since they don't apply to the judicial branch.

He is responsible for running IT for the nation's courts and he holds the title of assistant director of IT, which is equivalent to a CIO position. As for being a nerd, the 59-year-old Bryson hardly walks the walk.

"I think I've always liked some kinds of gadgets," he said. "But, for example, I've never really liked [handheld computers]. I now have a [Research in Motion Ltd.] BlackBerry, which I'm finding relatively useful. I like flat screens."

Bryson said he pays his bills online and uses online shopping Web sites such as Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. He noted that the federal courts and sites such as Amazon try to be user-friendly and always available.

Similar to CIO's jobs, Bryson must overcome challenges such as financial pressure to work with less money. With a budget of $300 million, Bryson's top priority is to sustain the basic mission to support judges and their staff.

"My job is to make sure we have funding and make sure systems are updated and in place to implement all across the country," he said.

Assistant director since 2000, Bryson is unassuming and deliberate, with an earnestness that belies his extensive professional reach. He is in a position to see long-term initiatives bear fruit.

"While we have enjoyed several excellent assistant directors over the years," said Leonidas Ralph Mecham, director of the courts office, "Mel has been able to build on their work and move IT forward."

Mecham said that Bryson's "knowledge of management, budgeting, consensus building and project oversight have enabled him and his technology staff to craft a process to successfully develop and implement a number of critical information technology systems."

Mecham said officials from the federal courts — rather than the administrative office — have felt a deeper impact of Bryson's tenure.

"The systems that have been developed and implemented in the courts have fundamentally changed the way courts do their work," Mecham said. "We now have electronic filing of court documents, and bar members and the public have virtual access to court case information. This has opened the work of the courts to the public in ways that had never been possible before. Other IT systems have changed the way our probation officers and others do their work."

Bryson's position might appear to be a lonely one, removed from the fraternity of the CIO Council and the urgency of complying with mandates from the Office of Management and Budget.

To assist his work, Bryson has a committee of 15 tech-savvy judges to push the bounds of innovation for district, appellate and bankruptcy courts nationwide. The Judicial Conference Committee on IT is chaired by U.S. District Judge James Robertson.

"We have more and more judges involved in our case-management system," Bryson said. "And what we're finding is that they are thinking of even better, more innovative ways of using the system to provide the functionality they need. You don't typically think of judges as being into that sort of thing."

He and Robertson meet every Monday morning via a videoconference from the judge's chambers. Bryson meets with the entire committee a few times a year.

Robertson said that Bryson communicates extensively with his court staff to improve IT and with judges to chart a long-term strategy for the courts' IT.

"As a result," Robertson wrote in an

e-mail message, "we have a very robust and successful IT program and look forward to continuing to meet the emerging needs of the courts." They have focused their joint efforts on the case management and electronic filing system and the Federal Law Clerk Information System.

The first program begun with bankruptcy courts in 2001, and is a newer version of the courts' aging electronic docketing and case-management systems. It makes case-file documents available electronically and allows courts to accept filings via the Internet. The system contains more than 14 million cases and is in use in 45 district courts, 73 bankruptcy courts, the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

The Federal Law Clerk Information System helps judges and law clerks fill positions by working with law schools to advertise for clerks. "Of course, both of these systems are relatively new, and there are many enhancements and improvements we will want to develop," Robertson said.

***

The Mel Bryson file

Work history: Assistant director of the Office of Information Technology at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts since 2000. He served as chief of the Technology Policy, Planning and Acquisitions Office within the Office of Information Technology at the administrative office. He has been involved in judiciary IT activities since November 1996. Before joining the budget division of the court system in May 1990, Bryson worked in several agencies, including financial management jobs at the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service. He also served as an analyst at the Office of Management and Budget.

Education: Law degree from George Washington University Law Center and bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Utah.

Family: He and his wife have two grown sons.

Hobbies: He likes golf and outdoor activities. He recently read "The DaVinci Code" by Dan Brown. Bryson says he is not much of a movie person, but he most recently saw "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." Television is more his style, specifically the History Channel.

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