Here in the state that's the nerve center of the digital universe, trying to access court documents online can be disappointing. "It's been a patchwork," says John Derrick, a Santa Barbara appellate specialist who, like many California lawyers, has been frustrated by the quality of Internet access to the state's courts. "The 58 counties have 58 different solutions, some more impressive than others."
Although the Judicial Council
is working to address such concerns, electronic access to California court records is likely to be uneven for years to come.
At the Santa Barbara
Superior Court, for example, online access is limited to a civil-case index listing parties and filing dates, and tentative rulings posted by civil judges. "That's it," says Derrick, a sole practitioner. And in Los Angeles County, with more courthouses than any other, e-access is a grab bag, he says: You may pay up to $40 to download a document from the superior court
site, but all that's available on many other court sites is a list of what documents have been filed?there's no option for downloading.
By contrast, not only does Riverside County
post all documents online but it doesn't even charge for access, says Derrick. Up north, sole practitioner Dennis Mesina says that Silicon Valley's superior court in Santa Clara
lags behind San Francisco
's, where "e-access is good but incomplete." (The latter's website is being redesigned.)
Often, incomplete access is more than just a matter of frustration?it can play havoc with a litigator's deadlines. "Once, an associate of mine in San Francisco thought the opposition hadn't filed, deferring the need for a reply," says Todd Norris, a shareholder at Bullivant Houser Bailey in San Francisco. "But it actually had [filed]?the court just hadn't uploaded it online."
Norris's firm met the reply deadline anyway, but he wishes California would adopt a system like Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER)
, the centralized e-filing and retrieval system for the U.S. district courts. Currently, the ability to file court documents online is available in only five of the state's counties for criminal cases and in about eight for civil cases, says Margie Borjon-Miller, citing information from the National Center for State Courts.
Borjon-Miller, who is the assistant regional director for the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in Southern California, adds that the AOC is overseeing a plan, approved by the Judicial Council in 2002, to create one online system for all of the state's superior courts. The Court Case Management System (CCMS) project
project will feature a portal for public access to case documents and e-filing, among other functions.
Four "early adopter" counties?Inyo, San Diego, Siskiyou, and Ventura?will be using the new system by fall 2010, with plans to reach all counties by 2013. Even though the funds for CCMS's development are encumbered, the state's budget crisis could threaten the deployment contract, warns Borjon-Miller.