They knew it was becoming problematic when the case files started stacking up. Years ago, former Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Lang Floyd was presiding over a construction defect lawsuit involving several beachfront condos when he remembers it becoming “a paper nightmare.”
“Historically, we were a traditional paper filing system where a lawyer would draw up a pleading, print it off and take it or mail it to the clerk’s office,” Floyd said recently. “The paper document was put in a paper file and taken to the judge’s office for review. The clerk’s office maintained everything in the paper files.”
The condo lawsuit was one of the largest the county had ever seen and Floyd said although individual cases were eventually consolidated and the case was settled, at one time it involved as many as 40 to 50 attorneys.
“Boxes of paper filled an entire wall of the clerk’s office,” he said. “They asked if there was anything they could do and I called the [Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts]. They said, ‘It’s interesting you called; would you be interested in a pilot program?’’
Pursuant to a pair of 2005 court orders by former Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, succeeding Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb was looking for a few guinea pigs in the newly emerging technology of e-filing. Cobb established a court technology commission and appointed Floyd as chair for the next 10 years.
“Sometime around 2005, the first live filing occurred and we gradually rolled it out statewide,” Floyd recalled. “The convenience and the cost savings has been great. There was a learning curve, as some older judges and lawyers were accustomed to the paper system, and the clerks used a DOS-based program called [the State Judicial Information System]. Alacourt was Windows-based. Both had to use a new technology language.”
Today, Alacourt remains the state’s public access portal — the homepage — for information and data from courts in all 67 counties comprising the Alabama Unified Judicial System. The website is powered by a related front-end software for attorneys, clerks and judges known as AlaFile, working alongside at least two back-end applications, AlaVault and AlaPay, to process the document imaging and online payments from e-filing, respectively.
In 2010, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) entered into a contract with Mobile-based On-Line Information Services (OLIS) Inc. for the software suite. Floyd said he was not familiar with OLIS during his time on the technology commission and was “not an authority on court contracts nor a party to the negotiations,” but Cobb said the pilot program resulted in a “private-public partnership” between AOC and OLIS, “with no money from the state.”
In the “Our Story” page of its website, OLIS notes it was formed in 1990 “as a diversified software developer, applications services provider and data operations center specializing in joint venture court system data and information management systems.” It also boasts, “This system is the first of its kind in the United States.”
Amid a funding crisis in 2011, Cobb issued an administrative order declaring “the judicial branch of state government has been consistently and substantially underfunded in its general fund appropriations over the past decade,” and “in order to preserve the timely and orderly administration of justice by Alabama’s trial courts, extraordinary measures are required.”
Among other things, Cobb’s order authorized courts to close on Fridays and to reduce the frequency of jury trials. But it also mandated the use of AlaFile for attorneys and clerks statewide, “thereby avoiding the unnecessary and wasteful expense of the postage and manpower costs involved in circuit clerks’ offices providing notices to attorneys by U.S. Mail.”
“We lost people in the courts when [Bob] Riley was governor,” Cobb told Lagniappe. “That was when there was a difficult recession and there were cuts all across the state government. But for e-filing, we would have lost access to the courts.”
Cobb said the arrangement with OLIS resulted in “tremendous savings” to the budget and “probably the finest e-filing system in the nation … We never got the accolades we should have gotten.”
Lagniappe submitted requests for information about the e-filing system and the contract with AOC in early June and July, but they have yet to be fulfilled. Meanwhile, OLIS partner Neal Buchman voluntarily provided limited insight about OLIS and its obligations to AOC as a vendor.
Buchman, who emphasized he does not represent or speak for AOC or any of its employees, suggested the court system is currently “extremely busy with issues relating to operations of the courts during COVID-19 and the reopening of the courts.” He shed little light on the size or scope of his company and deferred to AOC for the contractual details, but Buchman did offer more background about OLIS and implied its role is to simply manage AOC’s records, not own them.
“There are some public-facing portions of the system which we assist in operating and of which we are very proud,” Buchman wrote. “Two specifically are AlaFile, the electronic filing system, and alacourt.com, the subscription public access service. AlaFile was fully implemented in all 67 counties on December 11, 2006. At the time, it was the first fully integrated statewide electronic filing system in the United States. Even today, it remains one of the few trial court electronic filing systems that has no per-document filing charge.
“Alacourt.com, one can see from its public-facing website, is the AOC’s subscription public access to court records system,” he continued. “While we assist the AOC in operating the site, we do not maintain any databases of any court records. All court records are maintained on systems in various locations operated by the AOC and AOC employees. We only manage the subscription aspects of the system following rules set forth by the AOC, statutes and court rules. All access under those guidelines is to ‘real-time’ records of the court system.”
Buchman also disclosed he serves as secretary of the OLIS corporation while his business partner, Steven Olensky, is president. Steve Windom completes the three-member board of directors and together, “We are all active in the day-to-day operations of the business.”
Windom, of course, is the former lieutenant governor and state senator from Mobile, who ran for governor in 2002, but lost in the Republican primary to Bob Riley. Riley went on to narrowly beat incumbent Don Siegelman in the general election.
Windom was three years removed from elected office when OLIS’s pilot program with AOC began, but in an exchange of text messages, he acknowledged the company has “done business with AOC since 1998.” Windom, whose wife, Mary, is presiding judge of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and whose brother, Michael, was appointed as a judge on the Mobile Circuit Court last month by Gov. Kay Ivey, was responding to a request for comment about Mary Windom’s financial interest in the company.
He wrote, “Every year since Mary became a candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals,” she has filed a letter with the Alabama Ethics Commission and the Supreme Court. He provided a copy of the most recent letter, dated April 22 and addressed to Ethics Commission Director Tom Albritton.
“I previously advised the commission of the existence of a contract between On-Line Information Services Inc. and the Administrative Office of Courts,” Judge Mary Windom wrote. “I have no involvement in, or knowledge of, the specifics of the agreement other than I know that OLIS splits revenues with AOC in a public-private partnership arrangement as opposed to AOC paying OLIS. My husband, Steve Windom, owns more than 5 percent but less than 50 percent of On-Line Information Services Inc., which has had a series of contracts with AOC for a number of years. I have no ownership in OLIS. I have no role in AOC as that is a function of the chief justice and the Alabama Supreme Court.”
Yet, because it is reported as household income, the Ethics Commission requires Mary Windom and everyone holding elected office in the state to disclose it on a statement of economic interest form. On the same day she submitted the letter to Albritton, Mary Windom filed her 2019 economic interest statement, noting an income of “more than $250,000” per year in compensation from OLIS. Michael Windom has not yet filed a statement of economic interest since his judicial appointment, but it appears he has no financial interest in the company.
While it may be free to file, Alacourt is a subscription based-service that charges fees to view court records. While court clerks provide free terminals for public access on-site in county courthouses, remote registration on the system requires a one-time “set-up fee” of $150, plus a monthly subscription fee of $84. To view documents filed in a case, OLIS charges $5 for the first 20 pages per county, per day, plus 50 cents per page thereafter.
There is also an “on-demand” option called “Just One Look,” which allows the public to peek at records “one case at a time.” There, users can register and pay $9.99 to search for a single case, and may also access documents with the same fee as Alacourt. Users may also monitor a case in district court for $19.99 or a case in circuit court for $29.99.
OLIS did not indicate how many subscribers it has on Alacourt or Just One Look, but according to AOC’s most recent annual report, AlaFile recorded nearly 2.2 million filings from attorneys in 2018 and more than 1.6 million orders by judges. The same year, AlaVault reportedly scanned nearly 16 million pages, while AlaPay collected more than $62.9 million in payments to the state from more than 459,000 transactions.
Windom explained OLIS has “a long story,” but started working with AOC because he and Buchman had been doing collections work and the AOC’s existing subscription service was “$50 per month and horrible.”
“For our own convenience we teamed up with our friend Steve Olensky — a former NASA programmer — to create a user-friendly system to look up cases,” he wrote. “We did and paid AOC their $50 per month per subscription and charged more. Ultimately we got lots of new subscribers and most of the old ones. AOC did a bid and we won it — to provide the subscription system — and the rest is history. The system — AOC and clerks — got over $4 million in 2019.”
Asked for information about the bid process and contract, a spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Finance said, “The AOC actually handles that contract itself.” Windom did not elaborate on the $4 million figure and did not respond to a subsequent inquiry for additional information, but he claims the contract was initially awarded for a term of 10 years, but included a five-year extension if it was not canceled on March 1, 2020.
“It was not canceled so it runs to the end of September 2025,” Windom wrote. Further, he noted Statewide Amendment 2 in the general election Nov. 3 will strip the authority of the chief justice of the Supreme Court to appoint an administrative director of courts, and instead will give the authority to the Supreme Court as a whole. The amendment will also require the Legislature to establish procedures for the appointment, but Windom didn’t explain why it matters to OLIS.
“Over the years there has been concern that the AOC director should continue beyond a chief justice,” he concluded.
DIFFERENT STATES, DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS
While Alabama’s e-filing system has been fully implemented for years, other states are still trying to catch up. Not all states have unified judicial systems, and many leave it to counties or local governments to independently find software solutions for e-filing in courts, if e-filing is mandated at all.
In 2009, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring each county clerk to implement electronic filing standards. As a result, Florida’s clerks of the circuit and county courts created a public entity — the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority — to manage the design, development, implementation, operation, upgrade, support and maintenance of a portal for the receipt of electronically filed court records.
In an interlocal agreement, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority then contracted with the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers (FCCC) to design the e-filing system. In turn, FCCC uses its own subsidiary, the Florida Association of Court Clerks Services Group LLC (FACCSG), which was indemnified as an independent contractor and is permitted to hire subtractors to manage the e-filing system within the parameters of the state’s agreement.
“I don’t think you’ll find a governance system like this in most states,” said Beth Allman, professional support manager for FCCC. “In Florida, the elected clerks of the court aligned with our Supreme Court and formed an interlocal agreement with the governing body that actually owns and directs and oversees the e-filing portal. By contract, [the courts] contract with the FCCC to perform all the functionality of the system. We also provide administrative staff.”
In Texas, the e-filing initiative is managed by the Office of Court Administration with guidance from a judicial technology committee. In 2012, Texas awarded its contract to Tyler Technologies, the largest provider of software to the public sector in the United States. It uses a sliding scale for fees, which decreases over the life of the contract as transaction volume increases, but in 2018 the contract was amended to note user fees are expected to generate nearly $20 million per month and over the life of the agreement, Tyler Technologies shall be compensated in an amount “not to exceed $76,820,000.” The agreement expires next year.
The state of Georgia only instituted mandatory e-filing in civil courts last year. There, the state’s 159 counties use one of two systems — Tyler Technologies’ Odyssey system or PeachCourt, a Georgia-based product of GreenCourt Legal Technologies LLC.
In Mississippi, the Supreme Court unveiled an e-filing initiative in 2005. With guidance from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the Mississippi Department of Information Technology, its system, known as Mississippi Electronic Courts, is based on the federal case management and electronic case file system developed by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts for use in federal courts nationwide.
Tennessee has no statewide e-filing system for lower courts, but in 2018 launched a program called TrueFiling strictly for appellate courts. The TrueFiling software is owned by a Michigan-based company known as ImageSoft.
While the state of Alabama hasn’t been readily forthcoming with details of its contract with OLIS, the company recently spread its wings and in 2016 entered into a contract with West Virginia to launch its e-filing system, CourtPlus. There, the system was born out of a pilot project dating to 2013 and has since been implemented in 23 of the state’s 55 counties.
The West Virginia AOC was able to furnish its contract with OLIS eight days after a public records request, and it clearly defines the legal and financial terms of both the vendor and the state.
Rebranding its applications as WVFile, WVPay and WVVault, the contract decrees that OLIS owns the software and the code, but AOC owns the data. OLIS is responsible for securing the data in the public access portal, courtswva.com, and the parties work together to develop and implement training on the system.
In regard to the finances, OLIS is responsible for collecting and remitting filing fees submitted electronically. For filings where a court cost or fee is charged, OLIS charges a 4 percent convenience fee on each filing, with a minimum of $1 per transaction. With the exception of the convenience fee, the contract states “it is the intent” e-filing should remain free.
But for the 10-year term of the agreement (which also carries a five-year extension), the state of West Virginia will also pay OLIS a $35,000 monthly fee, while OLIS will further collect a one-time, $5,000 fee per county when existing data is transferred from the existing system to CourtPlus. After 10 counties are accepted into the program, OLIS will invoice AOC for $1,500 per county per month, and upon full implementation the contract will be worth a minimum of $82,500 per month.
AOC may offset its monthly invoices with user fees, and any user fees collected above the contractual amount will be split 50-50 between the two parties. But according to the contract, the public access portal — courtswva.com — is expected to be the breadwinner when the system is fully implemented. OLIS is entitled to 50 percent of revenues from subscriptions and the sale of images (documents) from the portal.
“It is expected that courtswva.com revenues from subscriptions and image sales will eventually be sufficient to fully offset the monthly payments to OLIS,” the contract states. “Upon [such an] occurrence, the monthly payments to OLIS set forth herein will be offset by 100 percent of revenues generated from subscriptions and sale of images. Revenues from authorized users, subscribers, users of public access services and all other revenues from third parties (excluding filing fees) will be split between [West Virginia] and OLIS once the required payments have been paid.”
According to the National Center for State Courts, e-filing is now a billion-dollar industry in the United States, and with courts budgets facing restraint around the nation, there are additional opportunities for growth. In May, the Alabama Supreme Court released a request for proposals (RFP) to implement a case management solution for appellate courts in the state. OLIS’s software is currently limited to circuit, district and some municipal courts, but appellate courts currently use an e-filing system known as Appellate Courts Online Information Service (ACIS), which includes a “view-only” public access portal.
Proposals were due by July 29 and the selected vendor is expected to be notified Sept. 18. The RFP states “the total cost of the contract will be a fixed fee” and the state intends to retain the public access portion of the system.
Although it has had a unique and distinctive legacy on Alabama’s Unified Judicial System, OLIS has largely escaped public scrutiny since the e-filing program began. In 2017, the company was cited in a complaint from consumer rights advocates after federal prosecutors charged a man with stealing Social Security numbers and personally identifiable information from Alacourt.
Afterward, it was revealed other sensitive personal information, including names and addresses of sexual assault victims, could be found on the system.
The state created a task force to address those concerns, and Buchman said it was his understanding “the Alabama State Bar would undertake an effort to ensure that all attorneys were aware of and provide training on” privacy requirements when e-filing.
“The AOC also asked us to develop a program tool that would allow clerks to redact information found by them which was improperly or inadvertently filed in existing cases, which we did,” he wrote. “Further, through the alacourt.com public access system, the AOC is able to determine which subscriber has accessed each document in every case file.”
But additional questions about system security went unanswered. In recent years, state court systems in Texas and Georgia have been attacked by ransomeware.
“With regard to our contract with the AOC, it is our position that only the AOC is able to address the contents, terms and conditions therein,” Buchman wrote. “The contract contains information relating to the software infrastructure of the court system and therefore has security ramifications that can only be properly evaluated by court personnel.”
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