Court Technology Conference: Be Prepared: Ensuring the Continuity of Court Operations During An Emergency

This is the second post in a series of posts that covers the recent Court Technology Conference 2009, hosted by the National Center for the State Courts in Denver from September 22nd to 24th.

Presenters: Larry Murphy, recently retired Director of Information Systems and Technology for the Judicial Branch of the State of Iowa; David M. Remley, senior judge, shared responsibility with District Court Administrator and State Judicial Branch IT Director for relocating all Linn County District Court facilities; Pamela Casey, Principal Court Research Consultant of the NCSC’s Research Division; Cynthia Easterling, North Carolina’s Acting Court Services Officer; Peter Haas, Louisiana Supreme Court; Zygmont “Zig” Pines, Pennsylvania Court Administrator

Summary: The impressive experts above discussed lessons learned from two disasters:  the recent Iowa flood and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  They also discussed preparation for other potential disasters, including disease pandemics and nuclear contamination.

I found one of the best examples presented from a loss of personnel standpoint was when one panelist recommended throwing the names of your staff into a hat and randomly removing 50% ore more of them.  That would give you a good idea of who would be left to run your operation if a disaster hits.

The opening sequence of this particular session was extremely moving as it documented the Linn County Courthouse, Iowa disaster, a video weaving both news and court official’s testimonials as to how they were dealing with the disaster, loss of records, loss of location,  and their attempts to keep the justice process going.

There were some interesting tips – like freezing your records in a flood. They suggested lugging all of them into the freezer and separating them later when you have a restoration company freeze-dry the files.

Another perspective presented was the potential increase in case load during a disaster.  Probate cases increase due to the increased death rate; criminal cases increase due to the potential looting and imposition of Marshall law/curfews; domestic violence cases and child protection cases increase due to domestic abuse and loss of parents; motions and case hearings increase due to border crossings, closure of public buildings, etc.

All of those who experienced a great loss of records relayed the lack of a disaster plan.  Extremely important records were lost in both of these key disasters (Iowa flood and Katrina) so the emphasis was on electronic scanning/recording of records.  Finding a place just to resume partial court operations was extremely difficult. In Iowa, a day of data was lost due to lack of back-ups, but 70% of all paper records were lost.  Closed files at remotes locations were also damaged.  Lost files were reconstructed with the help of lawyers and agencies involved with the cases.  70% of all counties agencies were displaced as a result of the flood. Prisoners were evacuated from several county jails, some by boat.

Fortunately, the Linn County Court had an IT disaster plan in place. Other county and government officials and personnel assisted in pulling everything back together. Vendors also assisted greatly in getting things back on track. This was a case of all hands on deck under tough working conditions and no one complained.

Conclusion: I have attended several of these Court Technology conferences over the years.  I have watched the gradual adoption of technology by the courts.  But I have never seen the courts move more quickly at adopting technology than they have since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its effect on the New Orleans’ courts.  The Linn County Court disaster put the nail in the coffin to the ‘nos’ on technology.  To keep the courts going and the records intact in the face of disaster, the courts must use technology to save and store records electronically and off site.   And by doing so, serve the citizens justly.

To watch the video of this presentation, visit the National Center of the Courts CTC Web site.


~ by CDLB on October 19, 2009.

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