Technology Changes at the Second DCA and Beyond

Judge Stevan Northcutt’s fantastic presentation at the HCBA Appellate Section Luncheon today really brought home the drastic internal changes going on in the Courts of the state of Florida as the judges adapt to electronic filing. Judge Northcutt noted that in his 17 years as a judge on the Second District Court of Appeal, the internal procedures and case management system were practically unchanged — until the Court went to mandatory electronic filing through the portal last October.

The Old Way

For decades, the clerk logged each and every paper file wallet as papers came in, and the documents had to be delivered from office to office (and often via courier from Lakeland to Tampa and back). The assigned judges’ staff prepared compilations of the parties’ briefs, which were circulated on legal paper to reduce the volume of papers the judges had to carry around to assess cases. A petition for rehearing en banc would have to physically move from office to office as the judges considered the petition — a time consuming process.

The New Way

Now, file wallets are no more — everyone within the Court has access to the electronic file from their desktops. Within the judges’ suites, the judicial assistant still acts as a gatekeeper to assign out tasks, but instead of doing so by passing on a physical file, she electronically assigns tasks to staff attorneys and judges. It’s a brave new world of instant access, with all of the good and bad that comes with that. Certainly, it’s a tough transition for the entire profession to get used to reading and researching electronically.

And there is more work to be done on the e-Fax system — the judges are awaiting a voting module, for example, and E-Fax is not yet rolled out in the other DCAs, which are all still using the eDCA system.

Handling the Volume of Filings

Still, the move to electronic filing will assist with the ever-increasing volume of appellate filings. The court handles upwards of 6,000 cases a year, and since October 1, the Court has received about 7,000 documents through the statewide e-filing portal. These are only filings by attorneys, as pro se litigants cannot use the portal at this time, but the clerk’s office is scanning any paper documents into the electronic system. So all staff and judges now have access to the same file at the same time.

Most interestingly, the court is experimenting with changing the compilation system the judges have followed for ages. Judges Northcutt, Altenbernd and LaRose will be testing a new type of bench memo at a January sitting that includes a fully hyper-linked bench memo with links to the record and arguments in the brief.

.pdfs and Hyperlinking

The most practical tip, passed on at Clerk Jim Birkhold’s behest, is that attorneys should always file .pdfs, even though the portal can accept Word Perfect or Word documents. The system just converts those files to .pdfs for storage in any event, and something can get lost in the translation. If you want your document to look the way YOU want it to look, convert to .pdf before filing (and make sure it is converted if possible, or OCR’d if not, so that it meets the accessibility requirements of Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.526.

And here’s my own follow up tip: If you haven’t already, you pretty much have to invest in a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional or another advanced .pdf manipulation program to ensure you are able to prepare the hyperlinks and bookmarks in electronic appendices as required by the Court. (The native .pdf program in Macs, Preview, can’t do the necessary hyperlinking, for example). It’s not technically difficult — here’s the tutorial I used to teach myself how to do it — but it’s not something you want to be teaching yourself when you are facing a deadline. Enough people have had problems with the requirement that the Court recently posted additional guidance regarding the requirement [.pdf]. And I know for a fact that the Court is rejecting filings that are not hyperlinked.

In any event, thank you again to Judge Northcutt for an enlightening presentation!

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