Judge Wes Tailor chairs the committee that will implement the changes. ()
Fulton County court officials are seeking bidders to provide an e-filing system for all cases filed in the county’s courts, a sign that a key recommendation made by a court efficiency panel may be coming to fruition.
Only the Fulton County State Court is served by an e-filing system, File & Serve­Xpress. Another case-management system, Odyssey, links the county courts and justice agencies, but it does not offer e-filing capability.
The move to e-filing was one of several suggestions made in 2012 by a panel reviewing ideas to streamline action in Fulton courts and its justice system.
“The county has issued a joint RFP with the clerk of the superior court, probate court, state and magistrate courts, so we’re all on board with e-filing now,” said Judge Wesley Tailor of Fulton County State Court.
Tailor chairs the eight-judge Joint Executive Committee that has been tasked with implementing many of the Court Improvement Task Force recommendations. He said that—although there are still a few sticking points—a majority of the task force changes are on track.
“I think the work the task force did was monumental. They put in a ton of time and effort, so we weren’t starting from scratch,” said Tailor. “When it comes to change within our system, things happen very slowly. And I think that’s a good thing; people want their courts to be dependable, and they want to know what to expect when they go to court.”
“The really nice part of this Joint Governance Committee project is that we’re all working together now,” Tailor said. “When I came on the court in 2010, my experience was always as a litigator. Since I’ve been on the bench, everyone is focused on how we can do things better. It’s not about us. It’s about the litigants and the lawyers that come before us. It’s developed over time, and it’s part of our culture now.”
In early May, Tailor released an overview of the joint committee’s work. He cited areas where a great deal of progress has been made, such as the merging of the state and superior courts’ jury pools. This action has significantly reduced the number of jury summonses mailed out and increased the number of jurors responding to those notices.
Other areas remain works in progress, such as an abortive pilot program to explore creating a joint pool of court reporters. The idea was tabled after encountering pushback from some judges and court reporters.
“There have been no issues whatsoever” with the combined jury pools, Tailor said, speaking of a proposal that was long opposed by then-State Court Chief Judge Albert Thompson, whose retirement in 2010 opened up the slot Tailor now occupies. “Once we consolidated the jury pools, we started looking at other things: texting notifications to jurors, online jury summons; and the courts are ensuring that the folks actually appear, so we’re pretty proud of that.”
According to Tailor, the number of jurors who showed up for service increased from 54 percent in 2012 to 81 percent in 2013. The number of jurors actually selected for trial increased from 20 percent to 34 percent over the same period.
Another Joint Governance Committee project involves placing more and better signs around the tangle of corridors that wend among the three building that make up the courthouse complex, Tailor said.
“We’re working with county agencies [and] the building authority, asking outside businesses to look at the signage we’ve got,” said Tailor. “It’s a maze down here, and it’s already nerve-wracking enough for some folks to have to be in court anyway. We may have check-in kiosks where it’s easier to figure out where to go.”
Last year’s launch of Odyssey fulfilled a long-sought goal. But it did not provide the tools for another one: the creation and publication of case-management data for each court and individual judge.
“The implementation of the Odyssey system—which wasn’t really a joint governance project—worked out pretty well,” Tailor said. “There have been some glitches; that, in and of itself, has affected how fast we can move on things like the case-flow system. Unfortunately, we don’t have it yet; we expect to have it sometime this year.”
Judicial caseloads have often been a tricky issue, with some judges complaining that circumstances such as the type of cases they hear, or the presence of a lengthy trial on a docket, can wreak havoc on even the best organized jurist’s schedule. Asked whether some of his colleagues are a little leery of showcasing such information, Tailor said their concerns are taken into account.
“I think overall most folks understand that shining a light on how cases flow through the justice system is not a problem. I think most are comfortable with letting people know how they’re moving,” Tailor said. “The issue is that they are reported in a manner that’s accurate. Some may seem like they’re getting backed up, but if you adjust for a problem case, so it reflects that a case may take a month to try, I think we can adjust it uniformly across the courts.”
Regarding the court reporters pilot program, the task force urged the courts to seek way to reduce spending on reporting costs.
“A couple of things made us put that program on hold,” Tailor said. Most court reporters are currently county employees, he said, although some are independent contractors. The state court has a pool for its 10 judges, while the superior judges have their own assigned reporters and a pool of “floaters” who can be assigned as needed.
“We kind of expected some resistance [from judges] looking toward going to a pool. Anytime you change it makes people nervous,” Tailor said. “Most of the questions reflected, ‘How is this going to impact my access to court reporters? Is it going to impact my docket?’”
“The first step in what we were trying to figure out is if it was even feasible to manage court reporters across both courts,” Tailor said. “It’s difficult, because you have to take into account lots of calendars where court reporters need to be present. Once that started to become an issue, we thought it was in the best interest of everybody to put it on hold. … Moving to independent contractors may seem like the best idea, but no final decisions have been made.”