By this time next year, Minnesota's court system will go paperless statewide.
That means no more running down to the courthouse to file a legal document. No more standing in line to get a copy of a citation. The deluge of paperwork that has long clogged the judicial system will be replaced by digital entries stored on a secure server. Instead of being bound by court hours, documents can be filed any time of day or night.
"This is a historic transition for Minnesota courts," Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said in a recent speech to the state bar association. "Things are going to change, and change rapidly, in the coming year."
Minnesota will be one of the only states where nearly the entire judicial system will be electronic. A few things, such as search warrants that require a judge's signature, and juvenile charging petitions, will remain on paper until technology is available.
Starting this month, attorneys, government agencies and others in 11 pilot urban and rural counties must file nearly every court document electronically. By next July, it will be mandatory for the rest of the state's 87 counties.
Once that happens, prosecutors and judges will be able to look at case files simultaneously, instead of waiting for someone to finish reviewing foot-high piles of paper. Instead of paying couriers or fax services to obtain important legal documents and hoping they arrive in time, lawyers will be able to view documents online. Police and sheriff's deputies will be able to transmit criminal complaints, citations and tab charges from their onboard computers, freeing up more time for patrolling and investigating. Smaller departments that may not have computers in their squads will be able to use a website to send documents.
The use of electronic or eFiling, eCharging and eCitations has been available on a voluntary basis for several years. By the end of 2014, 258 law enforcement agencies and 75 counties were already starting to convert to the new way of doing business now called eCourt.
There will be some notable exceptions to the paperless rules. Wills shall remain paper documents. Those who act as their own attorneys will have the option of filing on paper or electronically.
View from home
The coming changes are expected to fundamentally alter the way average citizens interact with the court system. Hennepin County Chief Judge Pete Cahill said that as early as 2017, it might be possible to view any statewide court document remotely, from a home, office or laptop computer, instead of physically traveling to a courthouse. In rural districts, where courthouses can be far away and hours minimal, such a change could make court documents vastly more accessible.
Cahill, a pioneer in helping develop eCourt in Minnesota, began researching electronic filing systems in 2009. The following year, Hennepin County started accepting electronic documents. Gildea then made it a priority for the rest of the state. Cahill worked with 15 committees to help launch the project.
Before eFiling, documents typically were hand-delivered to court, where a clerk would time-stamp the paper, put it into a manila folder and enter information into a computer database. Whoever filed would send additional copies to necessary parties. Then the judge would be alerted.
With electronic filing, those steps have been reduced to a few keystrokes that make the document available to all, with immediate notification. To ensure accuracy, clerks continue to check case identification information and make sure documents have been filed in the appropriate venue and fees paid.
Attorney Mike Padden, of Lake Elmo, is looking forward to another feature of the paperless court: the ability to file documents 24/7 instead of making the mad dash to get something to a courthouse by 5 p.m.
"It's a godsend. It's so easy," Padden said. "And I'm sure I'm speaking for my peers and lawyers."
In a profession that typically bills in 15-minute increments, time is precious, and Padden foresees counties being able to reduce the staffing expenses that eat up a high percentage of court budgets.
"If you can be more efficient for one client, then you can quickly move to task for another client," Padden said.
Extra time for investigators
In Bloomington, where eFiling has already become a way of life, Police Cmdr. Kim Clason recalled how her investigators could burn up several hours a week waiting their turn at the courthouse for a judge to sign off on a criminal complaint or search warrant. Now, cases are submitted by computer in the morning and quickly reviewed by judges for charging. The extra time gives investigators a welcome cushion to strengthen cases before the statutory deadlines to submit them, she said.
Something as simple as looking at a case file has become a breeze for supervisors, she said. Just a year ago, Clason would have had to track down the investigator and make a physical copy of any documents she wanted to see.
"It's definitely different, but it's been a smooth transition," she said.
Most of the early glitches in the system have been ironed out. Electronic signatures didn't always work properly and it was difficult to send larger case files. Ensuring private data wasn't included in documents was also a key concern, Cahill said.
Some say they will miss the personal contact with clerks. But for Michael Cuzzo, the sole judge handling cases in Cook and Lake counties, eCourt allows him much more time to prepare for his busy schedule. Previously, if he needed a case file from the other county, it would come through the mail or somebody would have to make the 168-mile round trip to the courthouse. He was familiar with eCourt from his days as a lawyer in federal court, where electronic filing has been in use since 2004.
In her state bar speech, Gildea cautioned that any foot-draggers on electronic filing would be well advised to get onboard quickly.
"eCourt is incredible progress," she said. "This will have a major impact on the practice of law in the state."