Pella Chronicle

January 30, 2014

Electronic court filing may bring problems

By Steve Woodhouse
The Chronicle

Knoxville — In March, Marion County's court records will transfer from their current paper forms to strictly electronic. County Attorney Ed Bull says he has heard horror stories from counties that have already made the switch. 

The new system is Electronic Data Management System, or EDMS. One of Bull's concerns is additional staff time necessary to enter data regarding court cases. Currently, when a case is filed, the Clerk of Court office (Clerks are State of Iowa employees. Those in the County Attorney's Office are Marion County employees.) does the necessary data entry to open the case. This burden will befall the County Attorney's Office when EDMS is implemented. 

Polk County has already made the transition. Bull attended a meeting last Friday for juvenile practicioners during a legislative session for the Iowa Association of County Attorneys. One of the topics was EDMS. There were 14 County Attorneys, or Assistant County Attorneys in the room, and none of them had any positive words for EDMS, according to Bull. 

Bull said he has learned that Polk County, which has a larger volume of cases and more attorneys working for it, has hired seven data entry employees. Two attorneys within the office, who primarily handled trials, have been transfered to EDMS managers. The office estimates that each new case filing will take an extra 15 minutes with EDMS. 

Bull estimates that if this true, based upon his office's current volume of cases, EDMS will burden his office with another 900 hours of work each year. The time is not Bull's only concern. 

Whenever someone within the County Attorney's Office files a document through EDMS, that person will receive four e-mails in return. Bull's understanding is that e-mail will also be the only notification his office will receive when a criminal defendant has filed paperwork related to the case. Therefore, he cannot just delete each of these messages without looking at them. 

E-mails received will include notification that a document has been filed, signed by a judge and processed by the clerks' system. Currently, his office files a Trial Information, which the judge signs and is then handed to the clerk. Under EDMS, the file will have to be uploaded to the system, a judge will electronically sign the document and the file will go back to the clerk who will docket the document.

The lack of personal interaction with the clerks in Marion County is something Bull said he would also miss. He has only high praise for the clerks as people and the quality of their work. Bull was adamant that the public understand the change is not their fault and hopes the public will not blame the clerks. 

"It's sad to think the interaction with the clerk's office, who are exceptionally nice people and a benefit of working in Marion County, is going to go away," Bull said. 

All of the electronic filing may have an impact on Marion County's information technology system. He is concerned that the County may have to invest in redundancy programs. Under EDMS, the County's e-mail system can never be down. Power outages could be "catastrophic," Bull added. 

"I'm trying to be very optimistic and go in with an open mind," Bull said. "I hope when we are fully transitioned, I'm able to say, 'This was a great idea.'" He went on to say he hopes that EDMS will improve efficiency and allow for a better court system in Iowa, but, "The early returns don't look that positive."