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Get ready for lawsuit.com. Technology has already changed how law is practiced in Washington, D.C. Associates research cases online; paralegals sift through depositions electronically; appellate courts distribute opinions through Web sites. But one central player in the legal system has remained largely on the sidelines — the District’s trial courts. That’s about to change. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the D.C. Superior Court are each moving rapidly on separate but similar plans to start using electronic filings on the Web instead of the forests of paper now generated in civil suits. As court dockets grow fatter, as computer technology becomes cheaper and easier to use, and as taller and taller piles of paper inundate lawyers’ offices and judges’ chambers, the moment is right for electronic filing. The days are numbered for the centuries-old system in which lawyers produce papers and deliver them to court clerks who laboriously create docket entries and fill file cabinets. The virtual door to the courthouse is about to be opened. Pilot projects are expected to be launched in both the D.C. federal court and Superior Court by the end of the year. “It absolutely will happen, and it will have profound implications,” says Andrew Marks, a partner at D.C.’s Crowell & Moring and a consistent advocate of electronic filing who created a technology task force during his 1998-99 term as D.C. Bar president. On the federal side, the judges in the U.S. District Court volunteered to become “alpha testers” of an electronic filing system developed in house by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. As a result, the court became one of a half-dozen districts in the nation chosen to participate in the second phase of the AO’s scheme. “We were selected because we had the interest level, the expertise, and the leadership,” says U.S. District Judge James Robertson, a leader of the local plans and chairman of the Subcommittee on Electronic Case Filings of the nationwide Judicial Conference. Outside of Washington, nine courts — five bankruptcy courts and four district courts — came first, forming a pilot project that started in 1997 and is viewed as successful. The U.S. District Court here, Robertson estimates, will go online in the last two to three months of 2000, with a few judges stepping forward at first and the program gradually spreading in two to five years to include all civil cases in the trial court. Lawyers, Robertson says, “will stop the practice of sending bicycle messengers across town at 4:27 p.m. to file a document. And when a motion is served, the system will give you an electronic receipt that you can mail to your opposing counsel.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will probably join the program within a few months of the District Court’s adoption. Criminal cases will come considerably later. In D.C. Superior Court, the pilot project will be limited at first to the Civil I calendar, which embraces a relatively small number of large and complex matters. According to judges familiar with the plan, JusticeLink, a Dallas-based private company, will set up the filing service and operate it for at least six months at no charge to the court system. Details of how the pilot program will work and for how long are still being hashed out among members of the judiciary, but some Superior Court judges say the system should be up and running by the end of the year. Civil I cases make up less than one percent of local civil matters. According to the court’s 1999 annual report, there were 679 Civil I cases last year, compared with 17,357 total civil actions. Civil I matters, however, tend to generate the most paperwork because of the complexity of the disputes. By cutting down on the amount of paper flooding the courthouse, some judges say an electronic filing system will free up time and resources to move cases at a quicker pace. “I think there is some real potential for electronic filing in some of our crowded courts,” says D.C. Superior Court Judge Rufus King III, who chairs the court’s Technology Committee. King says he’s convinced that electronic filing will ultimately be available in all facets of the D.C. judicial system. “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll get there,” King says. “The question is, ‘How soon?’” Robertson points to four major advantages of electronic filing. First, it will “enormously improve our case management systems,” he explains. “I’ll be able to go into my computer and link each brief to the one that it responded to. And court personnel won’t misplace any documents.” Second, he says, public access to court documents will increase dramatically: “Access will be much more seamless. A lot of information will be at the fingertips of anyone with a computer.” Third, litigators will save time, money, and effort. Finally, “it will save the cost of storing, filing, and retrieving paper. It will also change the nature of the work force in the clerk’s office. We may end up with fewer, more skilled people, who will make more money.” The electronic filing concept took off as Internet technology became more widespread and easier to use in the past three or four years. But in the federal courts, it began almost haphazardly, growing out of the unexpected problems of a particular trial court. Five years ago, the U.S. District Court in Cleveland found itself swamped by thousands of asbestos liability cases. It turned to the AO for help in managing a docket out of control. In early 1996, the AO came up with a system that worked. The Cleveland project became a prototype for the federal courts, laying the groundwork for the much more sophisticated system that is about to be instituted in the District. Some D.C. lawyers are already old hands at electronic filing — and they’re converts. Craig Goldblatt, a counsel at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, represents satellite communications company Iridium LLC in its bankruptcy case in the Southern District of New York, one of the courts already using electronic filing. When Goldblatt wants to file a document, he posts it to the court’s public Web site at www.nysb.uscourts.gov. He gives the docket entry a name, and it automatically appears on the electronic docket sheet, with a link to the document itself. The site is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Like many lawyers, I typically keep binders of pleadings in my cases,” Goldblatt says. “Here, I don’t feel the need to have them. I simply create a bookmark for the case on my computer and go to it.” Goldblatt says that electronic filing “changes legal research.” If he wants to find a pleading or motion in a court that uses electronic filing, he can simply log on and get the document rather than try to wheedle it out of a law firm or hire an expensive service to find it and fax it to him. And he says the new system “will have a leveling effect,” making the justice system fairer. A solo practitioner “will now have access to resources that he didn’t have before” just by using his computer. SURFING A SEA OF INFORMATION But electronic filing also presents important practical and even philosophical problems. The philosophical issues begin with an observation by Crowell & Moring’s Marks that the new methods “will create an immense sea of data that will be accessible to essentially anyone.” Although Marks is a supporter of electronic filing, he wonders about the threat it poses to privacy. Millions of documents in U.S. courts are technically public today. They have been filed in thick case jackets and are not under any court seal. But they are “practically obscure,” Marks says. “Nowadays, you can look for a document — if you know it’s there,” Marks notes. “That will change very soon. Anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, and a powerful search engine will be able to find it. When everything in a court record is available digitally, the consequences of any error are magnified. How do we deal with this?” Marks concludes that electronic filing may have the paradoxical result of encouraging more secrecy. Litigants may ask courts for more sealing orders — or there may be “more stuff staying out of the courts,” he says. People may decide to use alternative dispute resolution instead of filing anything remotely sensitive in court. An important practical issue is how to begin a lawsuit by service of process, a step that according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, reinforced by the constitutional due process clause, has to be accomplished in person if the defendant insists. E-mail or a posting on a Web site just won’t do. Robertson agrees that this is a problem, but notes that most corporations will probably waive their rights and agree to accept service electronically. Process servers will still be needed for individuals and for “those who don’t want to be served, for whatever reason.” Another key issue is how to give access to pro se litigants, who are often impoverished citizens who don’t have computers and sophisticated Internet hookups. Robertson also raises the issue of prisoner petitions that will occur once electronic filing includes criminal matters. “My pet issue is prisoner litigation. Will the Bureau of Prisons put computers in the prisons? For now, they won’t. So prisoners will have to file on paper,” Robertson says. Various other solutions have been proposed for pro se litigants. Richard Nettler, a partner in the D.C. office of Minneapolis’ Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi who co-chaired a key courts technology committee for the D.C. Bar, says he’d like to see stations in public libraries where citizens can submit their filings and keep up on their cases. Wilmer, Cutler’s Goldblatt envisions pro se litigants walking into court clerks’ offices with paper that the clerks can convert into electronic form. Others concede that for the foreseeable future pro se cases will be exempted from electronic filing. Some observers say electronic filing is only the next step and that e-mail and the Internet could eventually change how lawsuits are tried. “Everyone has been thinking about these systems as if they involve the transmission of long documents. But that’s not necessarily so,” says David Johnson, a Wilmer, Cutler partner who has chaired the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-directed the Cyberspace Law Institute. “Judges may want to have an online motions hearing. As these things get more widely used, they may become more conversational. You may end up arguing the case online.”

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