In a letter (pdf) to key members of Congress on Wednesday, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) detailed efforts underway to modernize the Judiciary’s electronic case management system, including replacing Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), the public interface for accessing court records.
The modernization of the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system incorporates the fundamentals of today’s IT development best practice principles: user-centered design and iterative, agile development based on testing and user feedback, wrote Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, the AO Director, to the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.
The new case management system is being developed using DevSecOps methodologies, tools, and processes. It will be cloud-based, shifting storage and operations to the cloud, and will implement modern data standards with a data catalog and data governance framework.
The modernization is being guided by recommendations from 18F, a technology consultancy within the General Services Administration. Additionally, the AO has had discussions with the National Center for State Courts and federal agencies that recently have implemented new or upgraded enterprise systems.
The top-to-bottom modernization of the Judiciary’s case management system will “significantly improve our cybersecurity posture and benefit not just the courts, but also litigants and the public who seek to access court records,” Judge Mauskopf wrote.
One of the first steps in the modernization project will be replacing the current version of PACER with unified search functionality and other improvements aimed at making records searches easier and more intuitive and user-friendly.
The new system will be cloud-based and will make possible records searches from a central repository that crosses court boundaries nationally. Unified search functionality will eliminate the need for users to search for records at individual federal courts and it will also enable full-text searches and searches by judges’ names – features that PACER users have in the past said they favored. The new system will take advantage of modern search technologies and algorithms, including “fuzzy” search logic so that misspellings and similar words are discovered.
A 12-member Public User Group appointed by the AO this month will help provide feedback and test the new search functions, along with other internal court users of the technology.
Judge Mauskopf’s letter updated members of Congress on recent significant events related to the project and the Open Courts Act, a bill pending in Congress that addresses CM/ECF modernization and has raised some concerns in the Judiciary.
She noted that discussions over the past few months between AO staff and the bill sponsors’ staff have been “productive,” and that further discussions could result in achieving the sponsors’ objectives while alleviating the Judicial Conference’s concerns about the bill. Chief among the Conference’s concerns, she said, is “identifying a stable, predictable, and sufficient source of funding for the development, implementation, and maintenance of the new system.”
She provided the Judiciary’s analysis of a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of the potential short- and long-term costs and revenue losses of the Open Courts Act. Over a 10-year period, the CBO projected direct system costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars and documented a loss to the Judiciary of about $1 billion from the elimination of PACER fees. The estimate also identifies the need for nearly half a billion dollars in new discretionary appropriations to make up for shortfalls.
The CBO attempted to quantify the potential new revenue associated with new temporary PACER and filing fee increases described in the legislation. The budget office included expectations that the Judiciary would be able to raise current PACER fees for high-volume users by 50 percent to generate $82 million over a three-year period. Additionally, the CBO estimated over $300 million in revenues based on an authorization for the Judiciary to increase filing fees on litigants by an assumed 40 percent on average.
“The creation, application, and impact of these fees is highly speculative and depends on an intervening and potential future action by the Judicial Conference as well as the future and unpredictable behavior of fee payers, who may change their practices in significant ways in order to avoid any fee increase,” Mauskopf wrote. “Further, increasing filing fees by 40 percent would create substantial access to justice issues for litigants.”
The AO Director said she remained hopeful that the resumption of discussions with Congress about the bill will resolve remaining issues.