Wired for justice

Two Texas judicial districts based in Central Texas have become the models for advanced courtroom technology in rural counties, but that’s only just the beginning, vows 33rd state District Judge Guilford L. “Gil” Jones.

via Wired for justice.

Thanks to Thomas Edwards of the Daily Tribune in Marble Falls for the nice article. I have always tried to work smarter rather than just harder, in both my former private practice and once I was handed the stewardship of the 33rd District Court bench.  Thomas captured the essence of this perfectly.

The article is repeated in its entirety below, with the Tribune’s permission.

Friday, 16 April 2010 22:13 Thomas Edwards • Daily Tribune Editor

BURNET — Two Texas judicial districts based in Central Texas have become the models for advanced courtroom technology in rural counties, but that’s only just the beginning, vows 33rd state District Judge Guilford L. “Gil” Jones.

Lawyers and their legal assistants say the services save time and money, cut down on mounds of paperwork, make operations more efficient and mean less mail and postage.

Jones, a veteran jurist now on his fourth term on the bench, has managed primarily through his own efforts to bring the 33rd and 424th state district courts into the 20th century with e-mail, Yahoo messenger groups, Web-based resources and more.

Now, he likes to joke, his sights are set on moving the district courts into the 21st century.

And that means more savings for everyone, from taxpayers to attorneys and their clients, he added.

“I’m really proud of the way my staff and then (Burnet County) and all the lawyers have learned to effectively use technology,” said Jones, 66. “My goal is to continue improving that capability as long as it’s productive because that saves money both for taxpayers and litigants.”

Though Jones has no concrete figures, a study of comparable state district court systems has indicated to him the 33rd and 424th — the latter which is under Judge Dan Mills — are saving tens of thousands of dollars in communications costs by going paperless and requiring less storage space.

State district courts are usually the highest local courts in most Texas jurisdictions, and can hear everything from civil and juvenile cases to the higher felonies, such as murder, aggravated assault and armed robbery.

What a difference 13 years has made

When Jones first took the bench in 1997, Burnet County had one fax machine and no personal computers, just “dumb” terminals that were part of a Unix database. (A dumb terminal has a screen and keyboard, but little processing ability). No lawyers used e-mail or did electronic research, and the Internet was a funny word found in Popular Mechanics magazine.

Starting with his own home-based gear, Jones — a former Navy communications officer who served two tours on the USS Kitty Hawk during Vietnam — began beefing up technology in his courtroom.

“For the first several years on the bench, I had a greater investment in technology in my office than the county did,” he said.

Over time, Jones became a digital spearhead, bringing the computer age to the court system.

“Before Gil showed up, we didn’t have that kind of technology,” said Burnet County Commissioner Bill Neve, who remembers county employees as recently as 1989 laboriously making entries into huge tomes by hand.

Nor is Jones afraid of new challenges, added Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger.

“He’s always ready to try new things,” she said.

According to officials, Jones has created for local courts an online master calendar; a comprehensive Web site for both lawyers and the public; a method to make an online request for court settings, with most notices sent by e-mail; correspondence conducted primarily through e-mail; and dockets that are sent out via an e-mail list on Yahoo Groups.

The best news, Jones and others say, is the price tag — virtually free to the counties served by the judicial districts thanks to open-source software. The only cost is about $95 for the Web hosting.

Today most of those who work or deal with the two judicial districts — which include Blanco, Burnet, Llano and San Saba counties — say the technology introduced by Jones has helped the court system make great strides in efficiency.

But the road to the future wasn’t built overnight.

Learning curve

When Jones first began to introduce technology to the state court system, he did so methodically.

More than a decade ago, the business world was beginning to embrace e-mail, and he wanted to create a communications system for lawyers who had administrative questions to be able to get information quickly from the court.

Electronic mail was a perfect solution, Jones said.

Lawyers and their legal assistants in the Highland Lakes gradually saw the benefits of using the new technology to make communications and updates more efficient — and faster.

Jones said that it was “several years before the majority of lawyers had and used e-mail.”

He also created e-groups and Yahoo groups for the dissemination of timely information.

“It was a way to push general information and docket information to the lawyers,” said Jones, who measures each word before he speaks and has a dry sense of humor — probably what one would expect from someone who is both a lawyer and a certified public accountant.

Today, Jones said, there is “100 percent participation.”

Setting the standard

The technology standards Jones has set for local judicial districts are rare for rural areas — and sometimes even larger cities, officials said.

“It’s really a great system. I wish every county that we deal with used it,” said Jennifer Bunting, a legal assistant at Shell & Shell Attorneys at Law, based in Marble Falls.

Bunting said most of the counties they work with — including Coryell, Lampasas, Blanco and even Travis — have nothing like the system set up by Jones for the Highland Lakes.

“It saves everybody time and money,” she said. “He’s blazing a trail. None of the other rural counties have anything like this.”

Bunting, who acknowledges that “everybody is mobile now,” said e-mail notices from the court system are more effective than relying on “snail mail,” and the other Web-based facets allow the law firm to better keep clients updated.

“The timing of it is very good,” said Bunting, who has worked nearly 11 years for the Shells. “Timing is of the essence.”

Bunting said she can look at e-mail dockets and closely match them to her calendar, or get on the Web site and check dates for civil and criminal cases.

“It’s so much easier being organized electronically than just having these piles of paper laying around your desk,” she said.

Her boss Eddie Shell agrees.

“It’s been very good,” Shell said.

What’s next

Jones continually updates the system, of course, but he hopes to expand in the future, perhaps even a docketing system that allows lawyers to make a reservation for a hearing.

In the not-too-distant future, Jones envisions easier online access for the public to view case files, something that will pull up even pleadings and motions — except in Child Protective Service cases and juvenile proceedings.

Those dreams could cost some money, but they also will result in savings to taxpayers and attorneys by further streamlining proceedings, Jones said.

In the meantime Jones will continue pursuing his interest in cyberspace, both on and off the bench. Not surprisingly, Jones also tweets on Twitter, blogs, has a Web site and enjoys social networking.

Perhaps he is most happy with the way nearly everyone who has anything to do with the court system has welcomed the new frontier of the Internet.

“They have embraced it, grown with it and they do very well with it,” Jones said. “Most of them today would say, ‘How did we ever get along without it?’”

Via http://www.dailytrib.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1709:test&catid=173:features-registered&Itemid=616 (accesses 6/2/2010)

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About Gil Jones

CPA/Attorney/Judge by training and trade. Hobby nut at heart with BMW m/c, computers, ham radio, kayak fishing, photography, hiking and, starting in 2010 some semi-serious running and bicycling (road and mountain bikes). Retired after 16 years on a Texas District Court bench and since 2013 have been mediating cases. I am a Credentialed Distinguished mediator (TMCA).
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