Federal grant to help Kansas courts expand e-filing system

Despite being denied funding by the Legislature, the state Supreme Court is using a newly-landed federal grant to push forward with plans to bring state courts into the digital age, the chief justice said Wednesday.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said the $205,000 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant will allow the courts to expand e-filing of court documents into six additional district courts, including Butler and Reno counties in south-central Kansas.

Wyandotte, Saline, Finney and Geary county judicial districts also will be wired into the e-filing system, which will allow litigants and lawyers to file motions, briefs and other documents online instead of having to deliver paperwork to the courthouse.

Overall, e-filing results in smoother-running courts because it cuts down on lines at the courthouse and employees don’t have to interrupt other work to go to the counter to accept paper filings. It also cuts down on the need to have people scan documents into the court’s computerized document system, Nuss said.

In addition, he said the system will be interconnected across the state so clerks in low-traffic courts will be able to jump in and help process documents when courts in larger cities get backed up.

The federal grant fills part of a gap left when the Legislature turned down the courts’ request for $1.1 million in the 2014 budget to expand the program further, Nuss said.

“We have no other place to go for the money,” Nuss said. “We have a budget that’s 97 percent, 98 percent going to salaries of our employees. We don’t having money lying around that we can scoop up and apply to e-filing.”

Neither Rep. Marc Rhoades nor Sen. Ty Masterson, chairmen of the Legislature’s budget committees, could be reached for comment.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said it’s “penny wise and pound foolish” for the Legislature not to fund e-filing.

“All it does is delay efficiency improvements in the court system that (would) make it easier for the customers,” he said.

Ward said the Republicans who dominate the Legislature can’t fund e-filing because they’ve had to make deep budget cuts to help cover revenue lost to massive tax cuts that were approved last year and were only partially reinstituted this year.

In addition, “there is a little animus between the extreme conservatives and the courts because of school finance issues in the past,” he said.

So far, the courts have spent slightly more than $1 million on getting e-filing up and running, a process that began in 2009. Of that, $904,000 came from a combination of federal grants, savings from open positions in the courts and fee income, officials said. The Legislature provided $107,000, said court spokesman Ron Keefover.

It will cost about $1.5 million to expand the system statewide.

Nuss said so far, officials have focused on implementing the system in the state’s appellate courts and larger counties’ district courts to get the most impact from the money spent.

The upcoming expansion builds on an e-filing pilot program in Sedgwick, Leavenworth and Douglas counties. Johnson County has some limited e-filing capability, and Shawnee County is gearing up for implementation in the fall.

With the addition of the six counties covered by the Byrne grant, e-filing will be an option in courts covering 65 percent of the state’s caseload, Nuss said.

Nuss said the courts will continue to seek more federal money to keep expanding, but there’s no guarantee it will keep coming, he said.

“There are a lot of worthy applicants for those funds,” Nuss said. “They (federal officials) could just as easily tomorrow say, ‘That’s it, we’re tired of this, let the state take over.’”

Nuss said the courts had hoped the Legislature would provide ongoing funding for the upkeep of the e-filing system.

But the current plan is to pay for that through increased filing fees and eventually making e-filing mandatory for lawyers, he said.

Nuss said e-filing should be pretty much a break-even proposition as far as clients’ bills are concerned.

While court fees will rise, clients won’t have to pay their lawyers billing hours for the 30-60 minutes it takes to go to the courthouse and file a paper document, Nuss said.