This week, the Oregon Judicial Department quietly rolled out a pilot project intended to change how Oregonians interact with the justice system. The eCourts initiative will allow anyone with an Internet connection to get information on any case in the state court system. April Baer reports.
If you're not a lawyer, and you've never had to go to court, you may not know about the state's old Oregon Judicial Information Network, or OJIN system. Ellen Haines does IT training for Multnomah County's courts. She gave me a demo.
"OK, so we're displaying a case in green screen," Haines says. "This is a small claims case in Yamhill County. I can't use my mouse in the OJIN system, so I use the page down key on the keyboard."
That's right. No mouse, no icons, no intuitive drop downs. Remember your old Radio Shack or Tandy computer and all those weird codes and commands you had to know to get anything done? You're starting to get a feel for OJIN.
Haines is part of the team that’s been working on the design of the new system. She actually doesn't hate OJIN. In fact, she respects how it's grown and changed over 25 years.
"The programmers that work on the system down in Salem have built so much into it to make it work for the courts, it's pretty amazing," Haines says. "But it's just not intuitive for a new user coming into the courthouse."
And that’s just one of a million reasons why the state justice system needed something better.
"Often times people will just wander into my courtroom needing help," says Multnomah County Court's presiding Judge Nan Waller. They won't know their case number. They have only their name. They don't know who their lawyer is."
On the old system, Waller would have to find a staffer, call up the person's last name, and try to open every file under that last name to find the proper case.
Waller says Oregonians often come to court without a lawyer. She says when people can't get basic information, they can't get justice.
"We spend a tremendous amount of time helping people get where they need to be, achieve what they're trying to achieve," she says.
That's why the Oregon Judicial Department established a task force in 2001 to talk moving to an electronic system. Waller and others made countless lobbying trips to Salem. In 2008 the legislature started setting up funding for an eCourts system.
The pilot that started in Yamhill County this past Monday is called Odyssey. Once the system is ready, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to use it to see up-to-the minute scheduling, court dockets, case files, archived records and more.
"The screens on the benches are interactive - touch screens, just like you'd use an iPad," says Court Administrator Phil McCollister, who is overseeing the pilot project in Yamhill County.
Judge John Collins is trying it out.
"It looks just like a desktop. At the entry, say, for 2:30, 3 o'clock, it says I have 14 cases scheduled for that time," he says, brushing his hand over the touch screen. "And with a quick click I have all fourteen cases all together."
Another click and Collins can see arrest records, charging documents, even legal histories for each criminal defendant on his schedule.
One of the benefits of the system is that it will eventually allow the courts to get electronic records from other state agencies. Say a judge is working on a domestic relations case and needs a file from child protective services. Currently that information might have to be brought over in person by a caseworker. Not in the eCourts world.
Need a look at DMV records during a car wreck case? Down the line, that will be available, too. Attorneys will soon be filing everything online, and dozens of parties dealing with the same case will be able to view those records at the same time.
Judge Collins says it took a lot of work, and some staff overtime during the past week, to make the change happen. But he thinks it's absolutely worth it.
"The potential for this is very high, and we're just beginning to experience that," he says. "Daunting? In the sense that yeah, it's a change, Change is hard in a lot of ways. But now that we've done it for an entire three-and-a-half days now, yeah, I think it's going well."
The system still has a few bugs. Court Administrator McCollister says staff worked through about 100 problems Monday with the contractor who created the Odyssey system. By Tuesday that number was down to 20.
A state work group of judges, lawyers, and other stakeholders is still trying to nail down what kind of records might need to be kept private.
Phil Lemman is a spokesman for the Oregon Judicial Department. He says there's great public interest in the new system. But his department is taking the go-slow approach to putting all the courts' information on the Internet.
"Some cases are open to the public but do have sensitive information, whether those are bank account records, social security numbers, details of divorce, child molestation, sex offenses, things like that," Lemman says.
Some records will be available online only to judges or attorneys on the case. Others records will be kept in the courthouse.
The system is estimated to cost $93 million, once all 36 counties have access. But for now, only Yamhill County's is operating. The Oregon Judicial Department hopes to get more pilots underway for Crook, Jefferson and Linn Counties in December.