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.