Appellate attorneys no longer receive a mailed hard copy of any order issued by Indiana's highest courts. Instead, those lawyers are now receiving documents in an e-mail.
In a measure to not only cuts costs but prepare the legal community for an even broader e-system, the Indiana Appellate Clerk's Office in mid-January stopped a practice it's had since 1817: mailing appellate decisions to attorneys and pro se litigants.
Just before the change took effect Jan. 21, Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard mentioned the topic in his annual State of the Judiciary and told lawmakers it would save the state about $39,000 this year alone. The new practice is also helping pave the way for a comprehensive appellate case management system, which is still being explored.
"We're not yet a paperless clerk's office, but a paper-based clerk's office trying to reduce paper and costs," said Appellate Clerk Kevin Smith. "We hope and intend to have an entirely new electronic case management system, and this is an interim step toward that bigger picture using our current system until we have the ability to acquire a new one."
Last fall, the Indiana Supreme Court changed Rule of Appellate Procedure 26 to dictate that all orders, opinions, and notices would be sent to attorneys by e-mail, and that pro se parties can opt to receive these documents the same way.
That change went into effect Jan. 1, but the clerk's office has been working since last fall on this. That meant confirming and double-checking e-mails and contact information for thousands of attorneys appearing in pending appellate cases, Smith said. Earlier in the year, the annual attorney registration statement asked attorneys to submit their e-mail addresses. Then in mid-December, Smith said about 206 letters were sent to attorneys who'd appeared in about 484 pending cases but didn't have a listed e-mail address. At the end of the year, a confirmation e-mail was sent to each attorney in every appeal requesting them to reply to confirm that e-mail address. This involved 2,172 attorneys in approximately 6,820 cases.
The e-mail asked them to simply hit reply, and to make sure they had their e-mail accounts set to not filter court orders into spam folders and that attachments of court documents could be received without a problem. Most of the e-mails got through without any issues, but the clerk's office did find some e-mail addresses that had been entered incorrectly or discontinued, Smith said. The staff also worked with firms that were changing domain names - which might influence the attorneys' abilities to properly receive the e-mailed court documents - and some firms whose firewalls blocked the e-mails.
Now, when attorneys enter appearances, the system will generate an e-mail confirming their contact information. If that e-mail isn't replied to after a certain time or it bounces back, the clerk's office will contact the attorney to verify if it was received or that the e-mail address is correct. Each e-mail sent and received is considered part of the court record, so they are docketed and placed in the case files. Heavy users of the appellate system - such as the Indiana Attorney General's Office and State Public Defender - will be put on a list so they don't receive e-mails for every new appearance, Smith said.
Currently, the state allows only one e-mail address to be included for each attorney, but Smith said the office and information technology department is exploring how to allow for multiple singleperson addresses. They can already ask that paralegals or assistants be included to receive orders.
Overall, Smith said the changeover didn't cost the state any taxpayer money except what was spent in staff time working to put the system in place.
"Getting to this point has been the greatest undertaking, but moving forward from here is much easier," Smith said. "We've done the best we can within the limitations of what we have now."
Appellate IT Director Robert Rath, who started in early 2009, has been working not only on this issue and other routine daily tasks, but he also is working behind the scenes to evaluate the current appellate IT system, what's needed, and how it could be created. That has involved looking to what other states have done, as well.
While this summer state officials will begin evaluating what to submit for the next biennium budget, Rath indicated that may be the time to start seeking any proposals or at least send notices about the state's interest in pursuing a new comprehensive appellate IT system.