Armor Up: Electronic Court Tools for Judges


Recently I saw an exhibit of a fully equipped Roman Legionnaire from the early Roman Empire. All that stuff – armor, sword, shield, spear – sure looked heavy. Interesting enough in itself; but later that day, I happened to see a picture of a fully outfitted American soldier in battle gear.

And I thought, “Hmmm…”

So I did some Googling and came up with an interesting little factoid. The average weight a Roman Legionnaire carried two thousand years ago was about 80 pounds.   A modern day American soldier carries — you guessed it — about 80 pounds.

A pessimist might say, gee, all the advances we’ve made; but the poor foot soldier is still carrying the same load. What a surprise.

But what matters is that the 80 pounds should be the best equipment for the mission. And what is the best available equipment for the mission has changed plenty in two millennia.

Which brings me to an observation concerning the current move toward Enterprise Content Management (ECM)-enabled judicial workbenches. Judges need tools and supplies in the form of information to accomplish their mission. They need access to information about the matters before them and to related matters; they need access to the applicable legal authorities and so on.

What is true with judges, just as with foot soldiers, is that there is a limit to how much they can carry and still operate. The advent of judicial workbenches powered by ECM with configurable workflow is fundamentally changing how much and what kind of work judges can accomplish during their limited available time. Because what has NOT expanded is the amount of time available to a judge.

Judges have always needed access to information. In paper-based systems, either the judge or someone on behalf of the judge had to locate the information in paper documents and files. Their instructions and decisions had to be committed to paper documents, which had to be routed and physically transported. To be signed, documents had to be physically available to the judge.

When legal authorities were cited, the judge had to access the appropriate volumes of statutes, case law or other authority, so physical proximity to these (often voluminous) sources was a real advantage, but it came with great overhead. Likewise, access to related files and documents, often necessary, required physically tracking down, pulling and delivering the appropriate paper files.

Today, a judge can use an electronic or paper-on-demand judicial workbench that uses ECM with configurable workflow to streamline and integrate all these activities and more. Such a workbench can integrate the court’s documents and files, case management systems and related agency systems, such as inmate tracking and warrant tracking, into a single, easy-to-use tool for the judge. Such a tool can provide, for example,

  • Intuitive, multi-touch interface with gesture-based commands
  • A docket-based system that is both judge-driven and clerk-driven in the courtroom
  • The ability to view relevant documents specific to a hearing
  • Easy-to-use electronic case files with colored-coded folder tabs
  • The capability to securely sign documents quickly and easily
  • Include judge’s notes, permanent markups, under advisement

and much more.

Just as with the foot soldier, none of this should be expected to make a judge’s life easier in the sense of working less hard. Eighty pounds is eighty pounds. However, with tools such as these at their disposal, judges can accomplish far more than in the olden days, with the same amount of effort; generally, everything they’ve got.

No Court Is An iLand (with apologies to John Donne)

iJustice Workflow Diagram

Not that typos never occur in this blog; but the capitalization in the title is not one. In considering the challenges of information and document flow through the justice system as a whole, I thought it appropriate to tie Donne’s observation[1] to ImageSoft iJustice[2],  an inter-agency integration tool, the very purpose of which is to connect the separate but inexorably linked enterprises of the justice system: court, prosecutor, law enforcement, jail, corrections, etc.

One of the emergent challenges manifesting itself within the justice system is that many, if not all, of the disparate systems across the myriad agencies of the justice system, having been developed separately and at different times, do not communicate well, with one another.    Thus the court and its close partners, although intimately linked at the business level, often reside on their own separate digital information islands.

Integration at the data level is a topic the sheer size of which too often discourages any consideration of how to facilitate better, more seamless communication.  But the fact is that a major portion of the communication challenge can be solved without touching the more daunting and costly data integration problem.

In the pre-digital era, communication and document movement across agencies operated using physical, paper documents.  This communication had little to do with the internal data systems (like the court’s Case Management System (CMS)or the jail’s Inmate Tracking System (ITS).  It was the lowest common denominator (paper) way to move information (and trigger action) from island to island.  In those olden days, “border crossings” did not seem unduly burdensome, as paper documents were created, then moved from agency to agency.

Now, with ECM, a court that migrates to electronic documents may be forced, in many instances, to print out hard copies to send to its partner agencies.   (I have in mind the image of Slim Pickens and his band of nasties having to stop to find dimes for a tollbooth placed in the middle of the desert to slow them down in Blazing Saddles.  It worked; in that it did slow them down.  So does having to print out electronic documents to send to other agencies.)

The paradigm embodied by ImageSoft iJustice advocates that, instead of embarking on the Herculean task of moving everyone to the same island, everyone keeps their own data systems but communicates using a common workflow and ECM engine.   The court keeps its CMS, the jail keeps its ITS, and so on.  The common ECM and workflow system moves documents across and through ALL of the agencies and systems.  (Here the image is the difference between using E-ZPass or stopping to pay and get change.)

This solution saves time “at the border” (on BOTH sides).  It also allows each agency to work on “internal” systems integration at its own pace, while all agencies get the benefit of common document management and workflow.

Moreover, the commonality of interest, coupled with the fact that integrated ECM with workflow requires much less money and effort than full cross-agency data system integration, makes the opportunities for cooperative multi-agency funding considerably more simple and attractive.  By sharing and leveraging the costs, each agency can potentially get MORE internal benefits (their own ECM and workflow) and IN ADDITION the benefits of streamlined communications and interactions, and expedited justice; with each of its partners for less up front and ongoing cost.

[1] “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the Main…”, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”, by John Donne, 1624.