March 2011 #1. Electronic Filing in the Federal Courts: Past, Present and Future.

Author:by Hon. Robert J. Faris

Hawaii Bar Journal


March 2011 #1.

Electronic Filing in the Federal Courts: Past, Present and Future

Hawaii State Bar JournalMarch 2011Electronic Filing in the Federal Courts: Past, Present and Future by Hon. Robert J. FarisMost federal court practitioners in Hawaii by now take for granted that they can file, serve, receive, and view court papers electronically, rather than in paper form. It is worth remembering, however, that electronic filing is relatively new and will continue to evolve. This article will review the history of electronic filing in the federal courts, describe the current status of electronic filing in Hawaii's bankruptcy court (including some problem areas), and briefly discuss the future.

The Past

Early in the digital revolution, the federal courts saw the benefits of information technology. The bankruptcy courts were among the first federal courts to computerize their operations. Beginning in the early 1980's, bankruptcy courts began to maintain their docket sheets in electronic format. The first such efforts were based on "home grown" programs, written by automation staff in individual courts. Eventually, two systems gained national acceptance and support, but a few of the home grown systems remained in use.

The early computer systems soon proved their worth. Between 1990 and 2000, total bankruptcy filings roughly doubled, but total staffing in the bankruptcy courts remained approximately flat. In other word s, we roughly doubled our productivity, mostly thanks to computerization.

The early systems only computerized the docket sheets and a few other functions. All pleadings were filed and maintained in paper format; only the "index" was maintained electronically. Although the systems were much better than the old handwritten or typewritten docket sheets, they did not fully utilize the growing power of computers. In addition, the lack of national standardization increased the cost of operating and supporting the systems. Finally, by the 1990's it was obvious that the old systems had to be replaced, because the hardware and software on which they were built were obsolete.

The next step took us from paper to electronic files. Many courts adopted systems that permitted them to scan paper filings and make the electronic images accessible over the internet. Hawaii's bankruptcy court began doing this for cases filed on and after January 1, 1998, using a commercially developed product called RACER ("Remote Access to Court Electronic Records"). Eventually, the courts implemented a national system called PACER ("Public Access to Electronic Court Records"), which is still in use today.

PACER and its predecessors, which permit the use of electronic files, are beneficial in that they dramatically increased the public availability of the courts' records. They did not, however, permit electronic filing; all documents still had to be...

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