The record-keeping system at the Durham courthouse is a glimpse back in time.
A large room in the Durham clerk’s office has drawers full of tightly rolled ribbons of film. An assistant clerk feeds a strip of “microfilm” into an old-fashioned grey machine and turns a knob. The black and white screen shows court records from as recently as twelve years ago.
A few steps over, there are stacks of large judgment books, bound in canvas and leather. Inside the books, in carefully crafted cursive, live the names of defendants and plaintiffs alongside their verdicts from cases until 2007.
The clerk’s office is like a museum of record-keeping from the 1900s, with systems and documents that are reminiscent of generations past. Durham is typical of the rest of the state. It is still reliant on ancient computers and cardboard boxes stuffed with files.
But officials say help is on the way. A new initiative will bring a new electronic records system to Durham and other North Carolina courts over the next five years.
Mending a “Patchwork Quilt”
Archie Smith, the clerk for Durham Superior Court, says the state’s courthouses have been relying on a “patchwork quilt” of technology that “began to show its age.”
In 2015, the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court studied the needs of courts throughout the state. One of the top priorities was technology.
As a result, the Administrative Office of the Courts signed a contract in July with Tyler Technologies, a Texas software company, to move North Carolina to a modernized system using their Odyssey case management tool.
Christopher Mears, a spokesperson for the state office of the courts, said the specifics are still being ironed out.
“We ultimately are paving the way for a virtual courthouse,” he said in an email.
When it’s finished, Durham and other counties will get modern integrated systems so clerks can manage documents, keep track of finances, and help lawyers file their motions online.
The project is expected to roll to a few pilot counties by March 2021.
“From Murphy to Manteo, everyone will be on the same system,” Smith said.
Frozen in Time
Today, clerks are surprisingly dependent on paper and outdated technologies. Consider the situation in Durham’s District Court, which relies on antique-looking monochrome computers and envelopes known as “shucks.”
The District Court clerk’s office first receives law enforcement agencies’ records, which are often adorned with hasty, illegible scrawl.
Clerks then stuff these documents in color-coded shucks: grey for infractions, brown for traffic violations, white for criminal cases, and yellow for DWIs.
An assistant clerk sits in front of a green and black screen, reminiscent of arcade games like “Space Invaders” from the age before color displays. She manually transfers each case’s details the court’s electronic database.
Then, the shucks are moved to cardboard boxes, which fill a narrow room up to the ceiling.
Sometimes, the documents are scanned and put onto CDs. The woman who scans them dips her hands in a pink tub of fingertip moistener, used by archivists who sort through thousands of parchments daily, so she can better grip the paper.
The difficulty in finding an old case depends on how it was archived. If someone requests a file from the late 1900s, staff must leaf through the aged pages of the leather-bound judgement books or hand-spin the microfilm tapes on a machine that bears a striking resemblance to the first television.
Court records are like time capsules, since documents remain in the format they were originally stored, Williams said.
“Helping People at the Lowest Points in their Lives”
The goal of the new system: make the court more efficient.
“I expect that we’ll be completely electronic, other than scratch paper that you’d write notes to yourself,” Smith said. After all, North Carolina courts are running out of space to keep paper files.
Electronic records sound promising. William Sheppard, Chief Deputy of the Dekalb County Clerk of Superior Court in Georgia, oversaw the county’s successful transition to the Odyssey Case Management software in 2016.
He says the system has saved time for the county’s staff and clients. Financial processing that once took two weeks is now complete within a day.
But paper hasn’t disappeared from the courthouse.
“We call it paper on-demand,” Sheppard said. It is still available, but they try to avoid print where possible.
Blair Williams, Wake County’s Superior Court clerk, says he wants the technology to help humanize the court system.
“I want to eliminate the keystrokes because they keep us from doing what we do best: helping people at the lowest points in their lives,” he said.
“It Can’t Tell the Story that the Paper Can”
Williams says it won’t be easy to get court staffers throughout the state to give up their familiar procedures. .
And others are wary about depending on technology. Lynn Vaughan, an assistant clerk of courts in Durham, said,
“The computer system might be great, but it can’t tell the story that the paper can.”
Technology often has glitches. Tyler Technologies, the creator of the Odyssey system, has faced reports of causing wrongful arrests, prolonged jail time, and premature releases in Alameda County, Calif., Shelby County, Tenn., and Marion County, Ind.
These issues may stem from problems with the Odyssey software, including incompatibility with prior electronic systems or data-entry backlogs that delay cases from getting updated.
Jennifer Kepler, a spokesperson for Tyler Technologies, defends the software. She said that
budget deficits in Alameda accounted for the county’s premature adoption of Odyssey, against Tyler’s recommendation. In Shelby and Marion, Odyssey was being blamed for issues caused by other court technologies, she said.
However, possible difficulties with the technology remain on North Carolina’s radar.
“If there’s a failure in the system, the injury to the courthouse process would be colossal in scope,” Smith said. “As cumbersome as the old system was, there was a certain amount of security in that warm fuzzy blanket of paper.” Smith said.
Despite those reports, Smith and Williams agree that the computerized system will be an important step forward.
“North Carolina is blazing a path for the courts of the nation.” Smith said.
But chucking the shucks? That might take a generation on its own.
In photo at top, shucks for District Court cases are stored in cardboard boxes. | Photo by Swathi Ramprasad