Thursday, June 21, 2012

Court Case Management Systems 2012 Part 1: It’s About Change

It’s all about change.  The technology has changed.  The expectations have changed.  Therefore, court case management has changed.


Court Case Management Systems 2012 Part 1: It’s About Change 
By James McMillan and John Matthias, NCSC, June 2012

Court Case Management Systems are creatures of the technology available.  This first in our series reviews changes in CCMS based on advances in database management systems, information presentation, and communications, and cost electronic storage.

Warning: A history lesson on computer databases and CCMS follows in the next section:

In the late 60’s and 70’s systems were often punch card based and were limited to mainly producing name and case indexes.  I remember looking through huge green bar printout books that were produced by a computer simply because they could put names in alphabetic order.  Of course this was a huge benefit in comparison with card files or name lists in docket/registry books.

Later, starting in the late 70’s the green screen mainframe systems were developed.  The databases were most often in flat file format and they were able to hold the case event registry and again names.  But these systems often required the same name to be repeatedly entered for each case.  In such systems one would see entry after entry linking a name (hopefully spelled the same) to different cases.

In the early 80’s advanced systems began to use index-sequential (ISAM) databases that accessed data on the computer disk either via a “B-Tree” or in IBM’s implementation via VSAM (virtual storage access method).

Both of these database systems had a lot more power as one could access multiple data tables (think names and cases) but were often very hard to change as one had to convert databases when a data field was added or changed value or validation (the list of acceptable data). 

But by the late 1980’s relational databases (RDBMS) were being widely implemented; and that is where we are today with several important additions that will be noted below.  RDBMS had a lot more flexibility and power.  And because relational databases could handle data complexity and relationships much better, they could more accurately reflect the real world that courts deal with every day.  And we all know that the real world is a very complex place to describe in court case data.

Database history lesson ends here.

Three Other Technology Limitations CCMS Had to Design Around

1. Information Presentation.  Courts work on documents.  And the green screen computer terminal had a lot of limitations (you can see a very young Jim McMillan in the picture below working on such a computer in the early 1980’s).  First, only 24 or 25 lines 80 characters wide could be displayed.  And while the information displayed on the screens simply didn’t look like the documents courts generated, the real problem was information density.  One could put a lot more information on a piece of paper by reducing the font (have you seen court forms?) or increasing the size of paper (yes, “legal” size).  Therefore WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) was a huge leap ahead for courts and the legal system because more information could be displayed in the same or better format as paper.

DECmate and Digital PDP-8 word processing computer systems
2. Slow data communications.  When it literally took hours to transmit data via dial-up modem at 300 or 1200 baud it wasn’t easy to do and it cost the courts a lot of money.  And if something is expensive only a few courts are typically able to do it.  With ubiquitous internet connectivity, all manner of systems design becomes possible.  Please also remember that this has really only happened since 1996 when the first Internet based E-filing system was piloted by the Northern District of Ohio Federal District Court.

3. The cost of electronic storage.  Computer disk storage was incredibly expensive until recent years.  So much so that it wasn’t even put electronic documents as an element into the “Four Bubble” case management system relational model (also see note 1 below).  One example of limited and expensive storage is a large urban court in early 1990s that implemented an optical disk based system for storing traffic citations and failure to appear warrant documents.  The system cost over $1 million USD at the time and stored… 10-15 gigabytes of data.  The cost of that same amount of storage is now well under $10.

Process, Organizational Change, and Expectations

We teach in our ICM Technology and Project Management class that court administration has three tools:

organization, and
money for more people.

This results in a natural tension with court information technology and court administration because process and organizational change has been difficult to implement in CCMSs .  One often hears that there is a need for considerable customization in a CCMS, either newly installed or later modified.

We believe that this is a result of IT not appreciating the continual tinkering that judges and court managers do to improve management processes.  In industrial processes it would be deemed continual process improvement.  In courts it is often viewed as not following court rules or not implementing standardization.  Further, it is in IT challenge for processes and organizational “customization” to be done by very small units such as the judge’s chambers, which may affect other units around the court.

Now with advanced relational databases, along with configurable information display and workflow technologies, CCMSs have the flexibility (if designed correctly) to more easily implement the process and organizational changes demanded by the business users.

Please note that this article presents these concepts generally, but we hope that it partially explains why courts have had to purchase different generations of case management systems over the years.  And we also hope that it sets the stage for the series to follow.

If you have any comments or history to share, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Note 1: The Four Bubbles model is also included in the book, Caseflow Management: The Heart of Court Management in the New Millennium by David C. Steelman with John A. Goerdt and James E. McMillan, 2000, 2002, and 2004., Chapter VII, Section A.


  1. Great article. I'd like to point out that Delaware was using eFiling in 1991 on a dial up system (while not "internet based" like the Ohio one you mentioned) it was the first. They used what was then called CLAD for their insurance coverage (and later, Asbestos) cases - the system later became known as JusticeLink and is now known as LexisNexis File & Serve.
    -Dean Merritt

  2. Dean - thanks for the compliment and for writing. There were several dial-up E-filing pilots in the early 90's but as you note, CLAD was the pioneer. Some day I will tell you the story about the JusticeLink saga. - Jim

  3. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)