COVID-19 encourages automation

By Josh Curtis, AAC Government Affairs Director

Two days after my first-born child was born the country shut down. On one hand I feel lucky that all my family was able to come to the hospital and see Tucker enter this world. On the other hand, none of our friends have been able to come over and see him since he has been home from the hospital. We have had to use technology for everyone to see him. Obviously, friends have been able to see pictures via social media, but we have also used other platforms for him to meet friends. I was on a Zoom meeting with some circuit clerks the other day, and they got to see his sweet face. I have a nephew that had a birthday party in April, we had a great party with about 25 people. This was the new kind of party where you can see everyone on one screen via Zoom. Technology has allowed us to do things that were not possible 20 years ago.

Technology can be a booger, but it allows us to be flexible in strange times. Saying the COVID-19 pandemic is inconvenient is the understatement of the century. This inconvenience also provides an opportunity to make improvements automating our offices. For example, we at AAC applied additional technology to our phone system that allowed an employee to work remotely and answer a cell phone just like they were at the office. I have seen many examples of county government adapting to our current situation across the state. One example is quorum courts meeting virtually. Lindsey French wrote in the last magazine that quorum courts under current law could not meet virtually. However, the AAC worked with the legislature during the fiscal session to change that law and allow courts to meet virtually during a public health emergency.

I commend the judiciary for using Zoom to hold court hearings. I would have never thought some of the judges taking advantage of Zoom would do so. The leadership at the Arkansas Supreme Court has been proactive in accommodating these difficult situations. A Per Curium from the Supreme Court on May 8 announced that beginning May 18, 2020, Arkansas courts in all divisions shall resume conducting hearings with certain measures to combat the spread of the virus to the public, including the employees of the Arkansas judiciary. It went on to say that presently, video conferencing is preferred over audio conferencing and in-person hearings.

On this same note, the AAC has been working overtime to fulfill the installation requests for the Justice Bridge — the innovative video phone that the AACRMF provides free to every member county and is connected to all state prisons. A high-tech jail phone is the cornerstone of this program. The jail phone enclosure is a vandal-proof, 18x18x8 enclosure built by TWH Enterprises in Batesville. Justice Bridge reduces counties’ liability of transporting prisoners, whether it be transporting a prisoner from a state prison or from a county jail to the courthouse for a quick hearing. This product has been in great demand since the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to alter our lives. The traffic on this network has more than doubled since March.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright said, “I learned about AAC’s Justice Bridge, shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak. I was looking for a way to cut down on the number of defendants who were in custody being brought to court, without sacrificing our ability to keep the cases moving efficiently. Justice Bridge got the job done. It is simple to use and has improved the safety and efficiency of our courtroom. The public defenders can communicate in privacy with their clients, and the number of in-custody defendants the bailiffs must transport has been reduced. After the courthouse was closed, this system allowed us to continue to handle our in-custody cases, without exposing anyone and helped keep the jail population from increasing.”

This product parallels the Per Curium from the Supreme Court preferring video conferencing over in-person hearings.

One complaint we have heard during this public health emergency is that title searchers are not being allowed to search public records in a couple of courthouses. Those counties that have their documents digitized and online can navigate this problem more smoothly. Trust me, the title industry would prefer to search for land records online from their own desk. The circuit clerks have been pushing e-Recording diligently over the past few years. Benton County Circuit Clerk Brenda DeShields, chairwoman for the e-Recording Commission, said she is proud of the work they have done up to this point. DeShields said “the commission promotes best practices and provides resources for counties beginning e-Recording.” Recording land records electronically have been beneficial during this pandemic.

At the 2018 Arkansas Bar Association Convention, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp said “e-filing should be available in all judicial circuits by 2025, but hopefully sooner. The judiciary must embrace new technologies that will help the administration of justice become more efficient, effective, and user friendly. I am proud of the progress that the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is making with such limited resources. They are striving to become technological innovators, and their innovations will save the state millions of dollars.”

E-filing has come a long way since it was introduced, and the AOC is constantly working to improve the user experience. Since the public health emergency began, AOC has received multiple requests for e-filing implementation. By the end of the year more than half the counties in the state will be e-filing. Chief Justice Kemp’s goal for e-filing statewide may come true before the year of 2025. E-filing is convenient for your constituents and will save your county money and storage space.

“I appreciate the support and forward thinking of my colleagues on the Supreme Court during these challenging times,” said Chief Justice Kemp when asked for a comment for this article. “I also appreciate the hard work of the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office and the staff of the Administrative Office of the Courts. Thanks to their efforts and the extraordinary work of the circuit and district judges throughout the state and their staffs and clerks’ offices, we have managed to keep our courts open and operating effectively for the citizens of Arkansas.”

Is this the new normal?

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