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A $164 million bond bill designed to modernize the Massachusetts judicial system’s IT infrastructure would “change how the judges and the courts do their work for years to come,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd (top center) told the Bonding Committee at a hearing on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy State House News Service)
A $164 million bond bill designed to modernize the Massachusetts judicial system’s IT infrastructure would “change how the judges and the courts do their work for years to come,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd (top center) told the Bonding Committee at a hearing on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. (Screenshot courtesy State House News Service)
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Security systems in state courthouses are “degraded.” Judges often wait three or four minutes for digital files to load while working on cases. And most state judiciary buildings have in the neighborhood of one-tenth as much internet bandwidth as the average Bay Stater’s home, slowing work to a crawl when only a few employees are on Zoom.

Top court officials cast a spotlight on those concerns Tuesday, urging lawmakers to approve a burst of spending designed to modernize how Massachusetts residents access justice and how judges, clerks and other judicial workers perform their jobs.

They threw their support behind a proposed $164 million bond bill (H 4499), which judges said five months ago needs to be enacted quickly and is now pending for further review before its second legislative panel.

“The improvements it would allow would change how the judges and the courts do their work for years to come,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd told the Joint Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets Committee.

“We haven’t invested in our infrastructure in a long time, and we really just need to get up to speed,” Budd later added.

The legislation would fund a suite of infrastructure and workflow improvements in the judiciary system through 2029, with the largest chunk, $94 million, dedicated toward creation of “digital courthouses,” $35 million for technological modernization and another $35 million for physical and digital security improvements.

A spokesperson for the SJC said the proposed legislation would represent the first technology bond bill for the state judiciary since 1997.

Committee Co-chair Rep. Danielle Gregoire said Tuesday that she hopes to see the bill move to the House floor for a vote “with all due haste.”

Her panel has not yet acted on Gov. Charlie Baker’s nearly $5 billion general government bond bill (H 4336), which got a hearing in February, and it could soon be tasked with reviewing Baker’s $9.7 billion transportation infrastructure bond bill (H 4561).

“We have some significant bond bills in front of us,” Gregoire, a Marlboro Democrat, told judiciary leaders. “We’ve got our hands full, and quite frankly, it seems like the amount of money you’re seeking in this bond is very reasonable and appropriately planned out. I want to move quickly and we will hope to bring it to the floor with the help of Chairman Day sooner rather than later.”

Priorities would include overhauls of court content management systems, planning for the replacement of the public- and attorney-facing MassCourts website, strengthening building and digital safety, and expansion of courthouse Wi-Fi.

Taken together, the legislation would empower a “modernization” of the state’s court system, Judiciary Chief Information Officer Steven Duncan said at Tuesday’s hearing.

“In the past, the judiciary, we’ve had a patchwork of different technology, where we’ve tried different things not looking holistically at how well these things interact and work together,” Duncan said. “We’re really trying to move from this patchwork of technology to a transformation aimed at improving the user experience, the digital courthouse and courtroom, to make things work more efficiently, and for that really to be supported by digital security as well as physical security and operational excellence.”

Six of the state’s seven court divisions have expanded electronic filing options, but Duncan said clerks still need to print out digital versions of documents and “revert back to the paper process” as cases advance. That creates spillover effects on attorneys, who face increased pressure to submit documents earlier so the courts have enough time to convert them to paper, according to Duncan.

“Although we’re supporting e-file, as one of the deputy court administrators refers to it, we’re really e-collecting, not e-filing, because we have to go back to paper once we’ve actually got that filing in,” Duncan said. “What we’re trying to get to is a true e-file where it’s e-everything: things come in electronically or come in on paper, we turn that into an electronic filing, and then throughout the life of that case, from the clerk to the docket to the judge being able to review the materials, it stays electronically and doesn’t need to be printed out.”

He also cautioned that security is a major area of concern. The judiciary is “far behind” on ensuring court digital systems are secure, Bello said, and physical courthouse protections such as intrusion detection and cameras are insufficient.

“Most of those systems have degraded and are past time and certainly not giving our security department the best tools to make sure that judges as well as court users, court visitors, are safe when they come to visit the courthouse,” Bello said.

Judiciary leaders first endorsed a $164 million bond bill to fund overdue improvements during the 2019-2020 lawmaking session, but neither the House nor Senate brought the matter to the floor for a vote.

Rep. Michael Day of Stoneham and former Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton — who resigned in February to start a new position in the judiciary as Gardner District Court clerk magistrate — refiled the legislation again this session.

For Trial Court Administrator John Bello, the wait has not been all negative: in the meantime, he told lawmakers on Tuesday, the judiciary was forced to “kickstart” some technology initiatives to respond to the pandemic.

“This delay has a silver lining: we actually find ourselves today in a better place technologically than we were two years ago,” Bello said. “The pandemic demonstrated like nothing else has the significance of technology to individuals’ ability to access the justice system, physically or virtually.”

Many court hearings in the past two years have taken place via Zoom, with attorneys and litigants able to participate without leaving their homes or offices. The remote options have also made interpretation services more available for those with limited English proficiency.

Budd said the COVID-related changes have proved that digital platforms are “essential” to offering equitable access to justice to all Massachusetts residents. Now, she wants the state to build out its judicial infrastructure to continue to “allow people to access the courts without having to miss work, without having to figure out how they’re going to get there.”

“One of the things that we found during the pandemic is people don’t necessarily have to come in in order to be served by the court system,” Budd said.

In October, Budd and other top court officials urged the Judiciary Committee to advance the legislation quickly. That panel recommended the latest iteration on March 1, and the House pushed the reporting deadline for the Bonding Committee until May 13.

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