Local courts last to modernize files

Records system in Juneau to be updated by the end of 2010

Posted: Monday, July 06, 2009

Around the state, in places such as Anchorage, Tok, Naknek and Unalakleet, a person hardly has to go to court anymore to dig up information on a case. Dockets, calendars, costs, attorneys - it's all available online.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But in Juneau, the state's capital, you still have to go to the courthouse.

As the state has converted to a new technology, CourtView, for its electronic case files over the last eight years, courts all over the state have provided far more information to people via the Internet. The First District - which covers Juneau and all of Southeast Alaska - will be the last to convert from the old system. Court administrators estimate it will be done by the end of 2010.

The old system is updated quarterly instead of in real time, has much less information that's often in codes rather than plain English and is rife with typographical errors that can make searches uncertain.

"It was cutting-edge, I'm sure, at one point," said Charlene Dolphin, court system special projects manager and former head of the conversion project from the legacy system to CourtView.

Most court records are presumed public, but the degree to which they're truly accessible on the internet varies. In context, even Alaska's old online public query is more accessible than many other places. In some California courts, for example, you need a case number to access a file online; others have no online access at all. Federal courts provide documents and calendars, but they require registration and charge eight cents for every page of information.

CourtView may have that in time, too. Dolphin said the courts will start scanning casefile documents and offering them online, in the next couple of years.

The biggest downside of CourtView is that it is more work. The conversion is a laborious process that's different for each court. And once CourtView is installed, clerks must learn a whole new system and enter more data to maintain more detailed electronic records.

Legislators have appropriated $6.5 million for the statewide project so far, according to court administrator Doug Williver.

Law enforcement and other agencies, attorneys and the public all report finding CourtView superior, according to court staff. The courts themselves use the system to answer clerical questions more quickly, Dolphin said.

Southeast's area court administrator, Neil Nesheim, said it was an issue of "access to justice," making the courts more "transparent."

"We've heard from other courts and other districts that everybody just loves it. The information is right there at your fingertips," he said.

Court staff gave a few answers to why Juneau will be last to get on the new system.

Dolphin said that certain courts, Fairbanks and Bethel for example, were particularly gung-ho about getting onto the new system.

"Whoever raised their hands first, we went there first," Dolphin said.

Nesheim said that Juneau was one of the first courts to convert to a new audio recording system. Learning and installing both new technologies at once would be too much, he said. He also wanted to make sure all the bugs were worked out before Juneau jumped in.

Despite CourtView's access improvements, it will only partly resolve the issue of typos in the casefiles, said Dolphin.

As an example, take Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau. Like hospitals everywhere, it's a frequent party in court cases. But it would be nearly impossible to pin them all down through the old online system. Bartlett has more than 1,300 cases listed under at least 36 different aliases. Sometimes Bartlett's first name is Hospital. Sometimes it goes by first name Bartlett. Sometimes it's Bartlett Regional' (note the errant apostrophe).

In CourtView, oft-appearing parties can have an identifier that links all their cases together. That will keep clerks from having to re-enter the same information each time and limit their typos. But the ones that are in the system will stay there until someone goes back and fixes them.

• Contact Kate Golden at kate.golden@juneauempire.com or 523-2276.

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