Supreme Court orders uniform filing system for circuit clerks
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- All of West Virginia's circuit clerk offices soon will have the same filing system, the state Supreme Court mandated Thursday, because individual county systems are "so needlessly complicated that they almost generate a certain level of mistakes."
The order comes after an investigation into Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster's docket when, earlier this year, a man accused of kidnapping was inadvertently released from jail. Webster previously told the Gazette she was trying to clear her docket of cases she believed were inactive when the felony attempted-kidnapping charge against Jeremy Carter was dismissed.
Thursday's report cites several other errors by Webster, but says the confusing system in Kanawha Circuit Clerk Cathy Gatson's office was largely to blame. Circuit clerks maintain records for the state's circuit court systems.
"After interacting with the Circuit Clerk's office as well as Clerk Cathy Gatson herself, the authors of this report cannot help but be sympathetic to Judge Webster since the system is abstruse and its numbering of cases, motions, orders, etc., counterintuitive," the report says.
It notes that some of the people who use the Kanawha circuit clerk's system have called it "an error magnet," because several different numbers are often used in reference to a single case and because separate case numbers can actually appear to be completely separate cases when they are not.
"It would be unfair, however, to single out Kanawha County's Circuit Clerk's Office since similar situations are extant in scores of West Virginia counties," according to the release.
Supreme Court officials examined all the operating systems in circuit clerks' offices around the state and found four systems being used.
"[T]hese errors have brought the bigger matter of the varying processing systems in the State's circuit clerks' offices to a head," the report said. "Simply warning any judge or staff member to be careful is clearly not adequate to fix future problems if the system themselves are so abstruse, so non-transparent, and so needlessly complicated that they almost generate a certain level of mistakes."
As a first step toward a statewide system for circuit clerks, 14 counties will participate in a pilot program using Software Systems, a Morgantown company.
Berkeley, Braxton, Cabell, Harrison, Jefferson, Lewis, Lincoln, Marion, Morgan, Randolph, Upshur and Wood counties already use the system. Ohio and Hampshire counties, which had planned to switch to Software Systems anyway, also will be part of the pilot and show how the transition will work, said Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury.
Counties will not pay to install the new system, according to the Supreme Court's mandate.
"County commissioners will save money on maintenance, licensing fees, hardware, software updates and wiring -- the court will take care of that," Canterbury said.
The program will cost between $500,000 and $700,000 through September 2014, Canterbury said. He said a more accurate amount isn't available because it's not clear what hardware updates each county will need.
"Indeed, ultimately the counties will likely find themselves with space emptied of boxes of old records as those are scanned into the new unified system during the next decade," the Supreme Court mandate states.
A Division of Circuit Clerk Services has been created by the Supreme Court to deal with the unified system and other matters circuit clerks frequently deal with.
On-Line Information Services Inc., of Mobile, Ala., will partner with Software Systems to provide electronic filing of cases and, ultimately, electronic bill-paying.
E-filing already is used in state mass-litigation cases. During the pilot period, attorneys will not be charged a fee for e-filing, like they are to file electronically for mass litigation.
"From what I've seen of it, although I've only had one very small meeting, I think it will be a very good thing," said Braxton County Circuit Clerk Susan Lemon, whose office already uses the Software Systems program.
"The biggest improvement I think we will see, and it will probably take a while to get to that, is that, essentially, we will go paperless," Lemon said. "In that regard, we are bursting at the seams right now; it's going to help us a lot, because we just don't have the space. We've got documents back into the 1800s. Our vault is full, as well as the entire top floor of our jail."
Lemon said she hopes the pilot program will be addressed more at the annual circuit clerk conference next week in Wheeling.
Gatson, the Kanawha circuit clerk, said the criminal case numbering system isn't used only in Kanawha County and is outlined in the circuit clerk's manual.
Canterbury agreed, noting that the manual is outdated.
"We're not going to run away from the errors we've made. We' should've been more on top of the errors and ahead of this sooner than we were," he said. "The errors made by Judge Webster pretty much forced us to look into it in more detail, but that's OK. This is a good outcome."
As for Webster, investigators reviewed her docket and said that, between Feb. 28 and March 8, the judge wrote 28 orders, "some of which had to be issued in order to correct mistakes made in her earlier orders.
"Since the errors do not rise to the level of an ethics violation, however, the Court at this time can only alert all parties to do a better, more contemplative, error-free job with all court documents," Thursday's report states.
Webster previously told the Gazette that, on Feb. 28, she issued about 20 dismissal orders, mostly for circuit court case numbers that she believed were either inactive or moot. In Carter's case, she intended to dismiss an irrelevant motion for a psychiatric evaluation. Prosecutors told her she actually dropped the entire case, and that Carter had been released from the South Central Regional Jail.
The judge said that when she learned of the mistake, she immediately issued a warrant to have Carter rearrested and met with law enforcement to rectify the situation. Carter was located and rearrested.
Webster issued a statement Thursday evening on the investigation into her docket and applauded the announcement of the e-filing system, which she said will "serve as a catalyst for much needed modernizations of the circuit clerk filing and docket systems throughout the state.
"A judge's criminal docket alone generates a substantial number of court orders which must be processed by the circuit clerk's office on a daily basis," she said. "To that end, I am glad the Supreme Court's findings re-affirm that any mistake or error was procedural in nature, and that the same was addressed and corrected in an expeditious manner. I also welcome its further conclusion that there was no evidence of any ethical or legal wrongdoing."
Staff writer Lydia Nuzum contributed to this report.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.