Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

State judges discuss management and technology to speed case resolution

October 29, 2004

State trial and appellate court judges on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday met to discuss improvements in management practices and technology to speed up the resolution of cases.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice James W. Smith Jr. made case management discussions the centerpiece of the Mississippi Trial and Appellate Judges Fall Conference at the Pearl River Resort at Choctaw.

Chief Justice Smith noted that complaints about docket management were the biggest problem identified in a recent bar survey. After eliminating a backlog of appeals and speeding up Supreme Court rulings on motions to a 30-day turnaround, he has shifted the focus to trial court improvements.

Chief Justice Smith said, “I favor a statewide, uniform system of case and docket management. I also favor electronic filing.”

Computerized case management systems are essential to track cases and push for their speedy resolution, said circuit and chancery judges who have implemented the technology.

Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner III of Tupelo is a computer convert. “I’m not electronic,” Judge Gardner said. But, he said, “To turn down the opportunity to take a step into the 21st Century was just plain dumb.”

Judge Gardner is among a group of judges and local government officials who are working to implement a computerized case management system for chancery and circuit courts in 21 northeast Mississippi counties. The system would include electronic filing and access to files via the Internet as well as internal case management tools. Work is in the planning stages, and a timetable for implementation has not been established.

Chancery Judge David Clark II of Forest has used a computerized case management system for three years for his district, which includes Jasper, Newton and Scott counties. From his office in Forest, he can keep track of dockets for cases filed in Bay Springs, Paulding and Decatur as well as Forest.

Before he began utilizing the computerized case management system, he had no way of tracking the progress of cases on his docket other than to look in the individual files. “I had no way of knowing what was out there,” Judge Clark said.

Referring to Judge Clark, Chief Justice Smith said, “He came up with a program that absolutely works in his district.”

The automated case docketing system stores information and lets Judge Clark know when actions are due in cases and when they are overdue. It generates notices to be sent to lawyers. The system has the capability to be used for electronic filing, but that feature is not yet in use.

Judge Clark would like to see the electronic case management system expanded. “Personally, I think that a uniform system statewide would be a great thing,” Judge Clark said.

Arkansas has an automated statewide case management system for its 75 counties. Auditors Dinda Hemphill and Sheri Cole from the Arkansas Administrative Office of Courts gave Mississippi judges an overview of their system, and advice about how to avoid mistakes. The uniform system has increased fine and fee collections, reduced local government automation system costs, created consistency in court proceedings, created more accurate information and improved public access to the courts, the Arkansas officials said.

Judge Gardner noted that change will mean changing the minds of those reluctant to embrace the technology, and educating people.

Chief Justice Smith told judges, “Please keep an open mind.”

One hundred twenty-eight judges and 97 court administrators attended the conference.

State court judges may also look to the federal courts for ideas to manage and move cases.Chief Justice Smith said, “I am an admirer of the federal system.”

Retired Chancery Judge Norman Gillespie of Oxford, former Clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, and Arlen Coyle, current Clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, outlined federal court practices.

Coyle said federal judges push cases through the system. “Early involvement of judicial authority is the key,” Coyle said.

Federal judges set trial dates shortly after cases are filed, and insist on moving the cases along. Civil cases are assigned one of six case tracks, which range from expedited to suspension. Judges utilize case management conferences, settlement conferences and pretrial conferences.

Judge Gillespie said, “Automation seems to be the solution in bringing about real case management.”

Coyle said the U.S. District Courts for the Northern and Southern Districts of Mississippi will begin electronic filing of records on Jan. 1, 2005.

Coyle said, “If it’s easier to use, it saves time. If it saves time, it saves money.”

Federal court dockets have been available for years on the Internet via paid subscription to the PACER system. Coyle said, “The new system makes the federal courts about as transparent and open with information as can be done.”