The state's ongoing budget crunch has prompted creative alternatives to cut back on costs, including the Alaska Court System implementing expanded email distribution of court documents. The change paves the way toward a digital future with less paperwork and more automation.
The Alaska Supreme Court amended court rules to allow the court system's use of email to distribute most notices, orders and judgments to legal professionals and agencies that routinely receive court documents, like the Office of Victims' Rights. The new rule for email distributions went into effect Jan. 1.
"We've been looking under every couch cushion to figure out what we can do," said court rules attorney Laura Bottger. She said the change results in modest savings but also noted that the court system's entire budget is modest compared to other state departments: $112.7 million for 2016, or 1.5 percent of the state's total operating budget, according to Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Craig Stowers.
Stowers addressed lawmakers in Juneau on Wednesday for the annual State of Judiciary. He detailed how the court system has cut back on expenses, and what cuts are planned in the future. Deferred purchase of new office equipment, voluntary and involuntary days off for employees and keeping positions vacant when employees retire were among the steps used to cover a $3.4 million reduction for the current fiscal year. (Seventy-six percent of the court system's budget goes toward employee salaries and benefits).
"Everything has to be on the table," Stowers told the Alaska Legislature. "We need to evaluate everything the court system does."
Stowers said that the court system e-filing project -- the ongoing effort to digitize court filings -- will be completed and operational in the next year or year and a half. The project will transform the court into a "paperless process" and bring about substantial savings, he said. The Alaska Supreme Court has proposed another 3.5 percent reduction to the court system's budget for the coming fiscal year, which amounts to $3.8 million.
Bottger said the new distribution method of sending documents by email isn't tied to the future document management system. The rule change does not serve as a substitute for the more robust system, she said, as the emailed documents aren't being stored in electronic dockets like they are in federal courts.
State and private attorneys sign up to use the service and simple Microsoft Outlook add-ons give court clerks the choice to send the scanned documents to parties involved in chosen cases. Its implementation was not taxing, Bottger said.
"(Clerks) just hit a button and they distribute to dozens of people instead of having to use paper, envelopes and stamps," she said. "It's boom and done."
About 1,000 emails were going out every day when what is being called e-distribution started about a month ago. Bottger estimated that it could result in a yearly savings of up to $125,000.
The e-filing system, when put in place, is projected to save a significantly larger amount of state dollars. Anchorage Superior Court Judge William Morse, who is part of the efforts to implement the digital document system, said the system will gather data from multiple sources -- the Department of Corrections, the Public Defender Agency and probation officers -- saving time and money.
Morse said the court system aims to develop changes that go beyond a paperless court record.
"What's desired is a system that takes advantage of automation, which requires standardization about how data and documents are collected statewide," he said. "But that will take an enormous amount of work."
For example, information collected during arraignments will be automatically filled in for related orders, the judge said. Those orders will be stored for multiple agencies to access. Currently, routine court documents are typed or filled in by hand at different phases in a case. The rule change promoting email distribution of those documents means fewer copies are being mailed out, but there isn't a central storage space with instant access. The e-fling project would change that.
The federal government uses a system called PACER -- Public Access to Court Electronic Records. It provides Internet access to criminal and civil case information gathered from federal courts and provides them publicly for a copy fee. It doesn't use automation to fill out documents.
Court workers, attorneys and judges will all have to undergo training, so the development team behind the changes is working to make the automated system as intuitive as possible, Morse said.
The Legislature has allocated $13.5 million to the e-filing project over several sessions, according to the Alaska Court System.
Changes will be initiated incrementally. Hardware to support the new system is in place at several courthouses around the state. Pilot projects will begin this fall. The current plan focuses on two case types: the overwhelming amount of minor offense cases and domestic violence cases. Building on that experience, the changes will expand eventually to include all criminal and civil cases, Morse said.