Minnesota’s judicial branch is pulling the plug on an ambitious software project that would have given the public remote online access to court records statewide.
The project, approved in 2017 and scheduled to go live this past January, has been plagued by missed deadlines, frequent programming mistakes and security errors. Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said the branch will start over rather than try to patch up the troubled web portal.
“I think there was just a really high level of frustration,” Gildea said in an interview this week.
The shuttered project is the latest example of a state government technology upgrade gone amiss, following the costly state licensing and registration system failure and widespread technical snafus associated with the 2013 rollout of Minnesota’s online health insurance exchange.
But unlike those tech projects, Minnesota did not sink tens of millions of dollars into its project to let the public view state court documents online.
Instead, Texas-based Tyler Technologies had agreed up front to take on the project at no extra cost, with the Judicial Council securing a $500,000 incentive for the company to finish on time. With all the deadlines missed, the company is now crediting that amount back to the state in the form of cost cuts for annual maintenance and other fees over the next six years.
As of February, the judicial branch reported that the program had 76 unresolved glitches, including issues handling credit card information, frequent error messages and multiple ADA compliance issues. By spring, the judicial branch opted to scrap the rollout of the web portal despite Tyler Technologies’ suggestion that it go live even with the issues unresolved.
“It’s not something that the branch is going to do,” Gildea said. “We have an obligation to the people of Minnesota to protect the data that state law and our rules say is private. We have to make sure that whatever tool we end up using that provides the necessary public access is just that: It provides access to what’s public and it protects what needs to be protected.”
Last week, the 25-member Judicial Council approved a 2020-21 strategic plan that includes a search for new ways to provide the public with web access to court records. Options include seeking a new third-party vendor, trying to build the portal in-house or collaborating with several other states on a remote access project. Gildea said she is hopeful that the council can firm up details of its next plan by fall.
An in-house project could be costly, with previous estimates around $1.5 million over two years.
“I don’t know what the Judicial Council will decide, but I think it’s important to remember that the judicial branch is not a software developer,” Gildea said. “That’s not our mission, and so if we can find somebody who is a software developer to do this for a reasonable price, that would be something I think we have to look pretty hard at.”
Tyler Technologies, billed as the country’s largest software service provider for the public sector, said it has worked with the Minnesota courts for nearly 20 years and counted among its successes the five-year transition from using 87 separate county court databases to a unified case management system. It also helped the state court system migrate to a paperless filing system. The company described the remote access project as a “unique public access system that was more complex than our current systems in use throughout the country.”
“The decision was made to stop efforts on this project while still in the testing stage,” the company said. “Any issues referenced were identified in testing.”
The state courts’ current public access portal, also developed by Tyler Technologies, occasionally posts notices of intermittent errors and slow response times for searches. But Gildea said the volume of issues with the remote access project went far beyond anything the courts have experienced with other services provided by the company.
The company also has been blamed for a long list of technical errors in court systems around the country, including allegations that people were charged too much or too little for traffic fines and claims of people being detained in jail longer than they should have been, according to a federal class-action lawsuit in Tennessee. The company says that lawsuit involved mistaken beliefs about its role in the county’s integrated criminal justice information system.
The task of making Minnesota court files accessible remotely is being closely watched across the state’s legal community. Seth Leventhal, a Minneapolis attorney who blogs about legal issues on his firm’s website, said the issue of public access to court records recently surfaced when a reader who could not find details of a criminal case against a lawyer attributed that difficulty to special treatment for attorneys.
“This is the problem with the Minnesota system: When it shields from the public view easy access, people make assumptions that are wrong,” Leventhal said. “It’s spectacularly ungainly and inefficient.”
In her annual State of the Judiciary address before members of the Minnesota State Bar Association last month, Gildea noted that the contract with Tyler Technologies shielded taxpayers from the failed project. But she conceded that “what we did lose was time.”
Better public access is something Gildea said she has pushed for since becoming chief justice in 2010. But getting it done right rather than quickly is a priority, she said, when considering the trove of sensitive information contained in court filings.
“It should be easy for the public to get the public information,” Gildea said. “But we have to do it in a way that safeguards what needs to be safeguarded.”