A Cat of Many Lives

A Cat of Many Lives

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Slightly more than 10 years ago, the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on Automation and Technology (CAT) came into existence. The judges appointed to serve at the inception of CAT faced the daunting task of determining how best to fast-forward the federal judiciary's automation program into the 20th Century before the 21st Century dawned. The vision of a paperless court (or at least a "less paper" court) was there from the start. The judges, however, soon realized that implementing that vision would take quite some time because they first had to address building-block issues like the creation of a data communications network linking all the federal courts, the design of a stable architectural platform and the replacement of case-management systems in use in the local courts.

The decade that followed was one of intense debate over the best strategic path to follow to attain the desired results at a reasonable cost. That was because CAT brought together the best of the best—the techies and the visionaries in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC), the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) and the local courts. The AOUSC, charged with overseeing the federal judiciary's automation program, had serious concerns about being able to implement and maintain an end product that would meet the identified needs of all the federal judiciary's internal and external users. On the other hand, some courts felt they already had quick and relatively easy solutions for many of the issues based on the experience they had gained networking their local offices and customizing the national case-management systems to meet local needs. Meanwhile, at least during the early years, the FJC acted as a facilitator at many user group meetings and contributed what it could to planning and design efforts.

Out of that environment came measurable progress. At the dawn of the 21st Century, the federal judiciary not only had in place a nationwide data communications network and a stable architectural platform, but it was poised to begin a roll-out of the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system in the bankruptcy courts throughout the land. Simply stated, CM/ECF is an application that offers web-based access to official case records in the federal courts. Though a particular court would have the option of rejecting the electronic filing component of CM/ECF, it was anticipated that all courts would accept the case-management segment of CM/ECF. The reason was that the existing "legacy" systems—the Bankruptcy Court Automation Project (BANCAP) and the National Integrated Bankruptcy System (NIBS)—were becoming outdated and would no longer be supported by the AOUSC or by any private vendor.

Only time will tell how successful the dedicated efforts of so many for so long will prove to be. How much time is another matter.

At ABI Annual Meetings and Winter Leadership Conferences in the late 1990's, the ABI Automation Subcommittee presented demonstrations of CM/ECF prototypes that were being conducted in the New York Southern, California Southern and Arizona bankruptcy courts. Feedback from ABI members was generally positive. At the three FJC regional workshops for bankruptcy judges in 2000, Judge Charles G. Case gave similar demonstrations to his colleagues. Feedback from the bankruptcy judges was generally favorable.

The experiences of the CM/ECF prototype courts (those mentioned above plus Georgia Northern and Virginia Eastern)1 led to certain software revisions. Next, implementation of the enhanced application was tested by CM/ECF alpha courts (North Carolina Western, Texas Western and Wyoming).2 That led to more fine-tuning and subsequent testing by CM/ECF wave test courts (Georgia Middle, Louisiana Middle, Missouri Western, New York Eastern, Tennessee Middle and Washington Western).3 Then in late 2000, the AOUSC announced that CM/ECF Bankruptcy Version 1 was ready for release and identified the bankruptcy courts that would be in the first three waves of implementation.4

So does that mean you will soon be able to use your own computer to access any document in the official case files of any bankruptcy court in the country and to file any document electronically in that same court? In theory, yes. In reality, no.

First of all, recall that a particular court may decline to implement the electronic filing component of CM/ECF. Some courts may decline because they are concerned about privacy issues, the validity of an electronic signature or some other legal issue. Some courts may decline based on procedural grounds. For example, filing a document electronically under CM/ECF equates with entering that document on the official docket, not merely submitting the document for subsequent filing by the clerk's office. (Hence, the work of the clerk's office staff would change dramatically.) Some courts may decline because they already have an electronic filing program in place that they believe they can maintain.

As alluded to above, CM/ECF Version 1 is not a one-size-fits-all application. That is especially true of the case-management component of CM/ECF. Remember, many bankruptcy courts customized BANCAP and NIBS to suit their local needs. Many of those enhancements were designed to streamline case-opening and case-closing procedures in the clerks' offices. As bankruptcy clerks' offices underwent mandatory downsizing beginning in the mid 1990's, those improvements eased the burden on remaining staff without sacrificing the quality of service to the public. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many of those courts are not eager to migrate to even the case management component of CM/ECF Version 1 when such a move could entail a loss of significant functionality.

Add to the above mix the fact that implementing CM/ECF is not a quick and easy process in the best of times. Even if a court is implementing only the case-management component, much must be done before that court goes live on the application. That is, dictionary events for the docket must be reviewed and revamped, procedural manuals must be updated and staff must be trained. (Staff members must also be assured that implementation of the new application will not mean the demise of their positions in the court.) Then realize that these are not the best of times in many districts. The recent spike in filings is putting a real strain on the hard-working clerks of court and their staffs. Taking away customized tools could add to their burden and result in counterproductive frustration.

Finally, consider the impact of CM/ECF implementation if the pending bankruptcy legislation passes. Though at this juncture it appears there will be a six-month hiatus between the enactment date and the effective date, that is not a long period of time given all the new duties and responsibilities the proposed law would place on the clerks' offices. Imagine trying to adjust your own office to address new tasks mandated by statute while your underlying business processes and procedures are in a state of flux.

Is anything being done to alleviate the situation so that CM/ECF's progress to date will not stall? Definitely. CAT and the AOUSC recognize and understand the logistical problems facing many of the bankruptcy courts. Accordingly, they have put in place a CM/ECF Working Group comprised of AOUSC staff and local court representatives. Those individuals are addressing a variety of legal, procedural and technical issues and concerns. In particular, the group's Modification Requests (MR) Subcommittee has been working its way through numerous recommendations from local courts for corrections and enhancements to the CM/ECF software. It is currently contemplated that a CM/ECF Version 2, which will meet the needs and requirements of most bankruptcy courts, will be released in spring 2002. At that point, bankruptcy courts implementing CM/ECF should be able to migrate to at least the case-management component of CM/ECF without too much loss of familiar functionality and, in turn, they should be able to turn off BANCAP and NIBS for good.

Only time will tell how successful the dedicated efforts of so many for so long will prove to be. How much time is another matter. To monitor the progress for yourself, check out the CM/ECF area on the federal judiciary's web site at www.uscourts.gov. The AOUSC plans on adding direct links to all the CM/ECF courts later in the year.


1 CM/ECF prototype district courts included Ohio Northern, Missouri Western, New York Eastern and Oregon. Return to article

2 CM/ECF alpha district courts included the District of Columbia, California Northern and Michigan Western. Return to article

3 The district court counterparts were New York Southern, Nebraska, Indiana Southern, Pennsylvania Eastern, Texas Northern and Wisconsin Western. Return to article

4 The first wave (implementation began in March 2001) included Delaware, Iowa Southern, New Jersey, South Carolina, Utah and Vermont. The second wave (implementation began in May 2001) included Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio Northern and Oregon. The third wave (implementation began in July 2001) included Arkansas, Louisiana Eastern, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, West Virginia Northern, Wisconsin Eastern and Wisconsin Western. Recently, the AOUSC announced the forth wave (implementation to begin in September 2001). That includes Alabama Middle, Alabama Southern, Illinois Southern, Iowa Northern, Kentucky Eastern, Kentucky Western, Pennsylvania Western, Texas Eastern and Texas Southern. Return to article

Journal Date: 
Saturday, September 1, 2001