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   Print Many courts are working to set up a CM/ECF system.

By Paul M. Bush
May 5, 2003
SPECIAL TO THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL

Significant progress has been made on improving the online availability of
litigation and bankruptcy dockets and document images. More and more federal
and state courts are beginning to add or to expand and improve upon their
existing online data capabilities. Almost all federal district, appellate and
bankruptcy courts now offer access to case information online in some form.
This initiative has been officially mandated in §205(a)(5) of the E-Government
Act of 2002, 44 U.S.C. 3501 (2002).

State courts have been much slower in their implementation of online case
databases, but certain states are making strides in this area as well.

Although most courts have already implemented online databases, there is still a
small handful of courts that have not. These include the U.S. District Court for the
District of Montana, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York,
the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma and the 2d U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals. The Southern District of New York Case
Management/Electronic Case Filing System (CM/ECF) release date has been
postponed yet again, to late June of this year, and the 2nd Circuit has
announced its Web Pacer database will go live on Friday, May 9.

Online case information

Direct access in these courts can be obtained only by using the archaic dial-up
method that will soon be extinct. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are
courts that have implemented Web Pacer, Racer and CM/ECF. These three
online case information systems are very similar, but Racer and CM/ECF offer
real-time access to case information, and only the CM/ECF system has the
ability to process electronic filings. However, now most courts are working to put
into action the CM/ECF system, and discontinue offering all other systems. Two
additional courts using the CM/ECF system worth mentioning are the U.S. Court
of International Trade and U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

There is a clear distinction between the case management and the electronic
case filing systems, two separate but closely related functions. CM is the case
management that allows courts to docket internally and manage cases, and the
public to retrieve dockets and document images. ECF is the electronic case
filing that provides the option for courts to accept electronic filings. So when a
court is actively using CM/ECF, it does not necessarily mean that the court is
accepting electronic filings at the present time.

While bankruptcy courts are leading the way in CM/ECF implementation, district
courts are also gaining speed. A few states have already completely switched
to the CM/ECF system, including Maine, Maryland and Nebraska. New Mexico
has a similar system in place for its district and bankruptcy courts that is not
affiliated with the CM/ECF system.

Free access

Accessing the CM/ECF, Racer and Web Pacer systems costs 7 cents per page
with a 30-page price cap for document images; however, there are still some
courts that can be accessed for free. These courts utilize Racer or their own
independently built database systems. These include the U.S. Bankruptcy Court
for the District of Delaware for documents filed before July 28, 2001; the U.S.
District and Bankruptcy courts for the District of Idaho; the U.S. District Court for
the Southern District of Indiana for civil cases filed before June 1, 2002, and all
criminal cases; the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota; the U.S.
Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina; the U.S. Bankruptcy
Court for the Western District of Oklahoma; the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the
Eastern District of Washington; the 7th Circuit; the U.S. Supreme Court; the
Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; and the U.S. Tax Court.

Litigators who need to monitor closely a case's docket and who require
immediate updates should note that docket-monitoring services such as
CourtLink and CourtExpress have quickly begun to lose their usefulness for this
purpose. As more courts offer electronic filing with real-time access using
CM/ECF and Racer, these vendors simply cannot monitor dockets effectively
since they can only access the docket on a daily basis. It's safe to assume that
these vendors will eventually offer docket monitoring more than once a day, but
right now it's important to be aware of this delay.

For example, in bankruptcy cases there can be dozens of new docket entries
made on any given day. Attorneys will not learn of these new filings promptly
unless they access the court's database manually.

Additionally, when a case is electronically filed, attorneys with an ECF account
(as opposed to a public access CM/ECF account) have the ability to receive e-
mail notifications immediately after a document is filed. This will continue to be
the fastest notification method available.

State Courts

Many states are just beginning to add databases online to access case
information. Since there are significantly more cases in state courts than in
federal courts, the task is much larger and complex. Some states offer separate
databases for individual courts, while others have a centralized method of broad
court access. States with broader access include Alabama, Arizona, Colorado,
Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia,
Washington and Wisconsin. States with many individual court databases worth
mentioning include California, Florida and Ohio.

State court case databases and electronic-filing programs are more heavily
influenced and designed by commercial vendors, as compared to federal courts.
Some of the many vendors include CCI-Maximus, Henschen & Associates Inc.,
LexisNexis, Manatron Inc., The Sanderson Group, The Software Group and
Verilaw Technologies Inc.

Other Sources

If attorneys can't download a document they need from a court database, the
following are a few commercial vendors that offer images for downloading:

* Courthouse News Service - offering recent complaints from various federal and state courts in
  Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New
  Jersey, New York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

* Virtual Docket - offering various case documents from the Delaware District, Bankruptcy, Supreme
  and Chancery courts.

* LegalCaseDocs - offering briefs, complaints, motions and other related documents in many
  jurisdictions.

* LitWatch - offering complaints, opinions and other documents in various jurisdictions.

While these companies continue to offer many documents for downloading, others have discontinued their online offerings. WDS (formerly Washington Document Service) has discontinued "Hot Docs," Juritas.com appears no longer to be in business, and Courthouse News no longer offers complaints from New York Supreme courts online.

The speed and legislation for implementing online case retrieval has greatly improved, which is reflected in what's available online. A law firm will be at a great disadvantage if it is not aware of the current court case database technology and availability. As practical obscurity is reduced, the value and importance of electronic researchers, filers and law librarians will rival and
possibly exceed that of traditional court clerks.

The different courts' integration of technology as it affects litigation and bankruptcy practice is significant and positive. During the next few years, continued growth and improvement will further enable faster, more efficient case-information management, retrieval and filing for law firms, court employees and the general public.
 

This article is reprinted with permission from the May 5, 2003 issue of the National Law Journal. © 2003 ALM Properties, Inc. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.  All rights reserved.


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