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Supreme Court explores e-filing in appellate courts

(From the Administrative Office of the Courts)
The Tennessee Supreme Court has filed an order that could lead to a substantial reduction in the amount of paper handled by the state’s three offices of the appellate court clerk and also improve access to court records by making more of them available online. (Download the proposed rule in pdf format here.)

But, before electronic filing – or e-filing – of documents in appellate court cases is implemented as a pilot project, the court is soliciting comments concerning the proposed change. Under the proposal, most filings in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals could be filed electronically and also would be accessible without charge through the internet.

Exempted filings, listed in the proposed rule, include those dealing with minors and documents sealed by a judge. The Supreme Court order, filed Tuesday and posted on the court system website at www.tncourts.gov, creates a 90 day public comment period. The court will review comments before adopting Supreme Court Rule 46, the e-filing rule, which would establish the pilot project.

“The court created a task force, with Justice Janice Holder as our liaison, to study any benefits or pitfalls related to e-filing and then come back to us with recommendations,” Chief Justice William. M. Barker said. “In its detailed report, the task force found that efficiency and accessibility could be improved with a shift from paper filings to electronic filings where feasible and appropriate.” (Download the task force report in pdf format here.)

Tennessee Appellate Court Clerk Michael Catalano, who chaired the task force, oversees offices in Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville, where electronic filings would be accepted under the pilot project. Catalano said even if e-filing were to become mandatory in the future, rather than discretionary as it is under the proposed rule, it would not create a paperless office, but it could significantly reduce the amount of paper he and his staff receive and handle.

“In 2005, our three offices dealt with 26,425 documents filed in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Court of Criminal Appeals and workers compensation court,” Catalano said. “Many of these documents are dozens of pages long. They included briefs, motions, petitions, orders, opinions and other miscellaneous documents.”
Catalano said it is not unusual for filings in some complex cases to be 100 or more pages and fill several bankers’ boxes.

“There are a number of benefits of e-filing beyond the paper issue,” Catalano said. “First, it will enable judges and their staffs, lawyers and the clerk's office to have easier access to documents. In addition, the task force proposes to post documents on the internet for free. That is clearly intended to encourage more open access of the courts to the public.”

If Rule 46 is adopted by the court, Catalano said it would not immediately be implemented.

“We would have to contract with an electronic filing service provider as a first step,” he said. “It probably would be sometime in 2007, or perhaps beyond, before we could begin the pilot project.”

The rule posted by the court for comment says litigants, through their attorneys, would be able to “e-file any document that would otherwise be filed with the clerk’s office in accordance with the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure,” except those specifically exempted. The filings would be considered official.

Attorneys wanting to e-file would have to register and receive a password for the system. The system would allow attorneys to file even after the clerk’s office normally is closed for the day.

“Any document received by the clerk before midnight … shall be deemed filed on that date …,” the rule states.
Documents filed electronically by registered users and authorized court personnel would be considered to have been signed. The rule, as proposed, would require parties filing documents to maintain paper copies bearing signatures until final disposition of their cases.

During the pilot project, the documents could be viewed, downloaded and printed through a special website created by the service provider.

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