State extends eCourts contract, limits cost increases, cuts $6 million from original bill

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  • State court officials have announced they will save $6.1 million from their original 10-year, $100 million eCourts contract. The court system has agreed to extend the contract for another five years, with cost increases capped at 3% per year.
  • The updated contract news arrives as the court system sets a new July 22 eCourts go-live date for 11 Western North Carolina counties.
  • Forty-nine of the state's 100 counties are scheduled to transition to eCourts by the end of 2024.

North Carolina’s court system will save more than $6 million from its original 10-year eCourts contract. The court system is also extending the contract by another five years, with cost increases capped at 3% per year.

The state Administrative Office of the Courts is releasing updated contract information Monday while announcing the next go-live date for eCourts expansion.

Eleven Western North Carolina counties will start using eCourts’ paperless recordkeeping on July 22. Prior to Monday’s announcement, those western counties had been preparing for a “summer” eCourts transition.

The original eCourts contract with Texas-based vendor Tyler Technologies called for roughly $100 million of spending over 10 years from 2019 to 2029.

Now that original bill will decrease by $6,139,083, according to documents reviewed by Carolina Journal. The lower bill accounts for “vendor implementation delays,” according to the documents.

“Reducing the cost of North Carolina’s eCourts contract by more than $6 million holds the vendor accountable for implementation delays while maximizing the public benefits of this historic transition from paper court records to electronic access and filings,” said AOC Director Ryan Boyce.    

The same contract amendment extends the agreement with Tyler Technologies through 2034. Fixed pricing in the extended contract is designed to “protect taxpayers against variable price escalations in inflationary economic and technology environments,” according to documents. 

Regardless of the extension, AOC reserved the right to terminate the contract “at any time for cause or convenience.”

Enterprise Justice is the official name of the program extending eCourts to counties across the state. Seventeen counties use eCourts today. Twelve northeastern counties transitioned to the system in February. Ten more counties in north central North Carolina — including Guilford, Durham, and Orange — will shift to eCourts on April 29.

By that point, about half of the state’s annual caseload by court filings will have shifted to eCourts, court officials reported.

eCourts rollout map for 2024
Image provided by the NC Administrative Office of the Courts

The newly announced July 22 start date applies to Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Polk, Swain, and Transylvania counties.

Eleven more counties in south central North Carolina will switch to eCourts in the fall. By that point, 49 of the state’s 100 counties will have transitioned to paperless court records. Enterprise Justice will reach North Carolina’s remaining counties in 2025.

Since electronic filing started in North Carolina, eCourts has accepted nearly 1 million total electronic court filings in its File & Serve program, processed more than 3 million eFiled citations and criminal processes, and saved over 3.4 million sheets of paper, according to AOC estimates.

The eCourts expansion is taking place as state officials deal with a federal lawsuit targeting the system’s rollout.

The latest version of that suit added Mecklenburg County’s sheriff and Superior Court clerk as defendants. The suit also added four new plaintiffs, bringing the total number to 13.

Court documents filed in February added Mecklenburg Sheriff Gary McFadden and Court Clerk Elisa Chinn-Gary to a list of defendants that already featured sheriffs and court clerks in Wake and Lee counties, along with top AOC officials and eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies.

During a court hearing in Greensboro, US District Judge William Osteen granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint. Osteen dismissed all pending motions to dismiss the case. He set an April 9 deadline for new motions to dismiss the suit.

Osteen also set a timeline for plaintiffs to seek class-action status for their case. They can file a motion within 90 days of an “initial pretrial order unless that period is extended by court order,” according to online court records.

Three of the case’s four new plaintiffs have complaints linked to the Mecklenburg sheriff’s office. The fourth new complaint is tied to Wake County.

In each of the Mecklenburg cases, the suit alleges that plaintiffs spent an excessive amount of time in jail — from 14.5 hours to 26.5 hours — because of eCourts errors. In the Wake case, the suit alleges that a man spent 36 hours in jail after eCourts “revived” a warrant from 2001 that had “been resolved more than twenty years prior.”

A state lawyer defended the new eCourts program in a federal court filing in January.

“[E]Courts is the culmination of years of learning, planning, and training by numerous judicial stakeholders, including the Judicial Defendants named here,” wrote state Special Deputy Attorney General Elizabeth Curran O’Brien.

She represents Boyce and Brad Fowler, AOC’s chief business officer and eCourts “executive sponsor.” O’Brien also represents Wake County Superior Court Clerk Blair Williams and Lee County Superior Court Clerk Susie Thomas.

“[T]he Judicial Defendants are committed to successfully implementing eCourts and enabling judicial officials, litigants, law enforcement officers, and others to conduct court business fairly and efficiently,” O’Brien wrote. “It is unclear what claims Plaintiffs bring against the Judicial Defendants and what relief they seek due to fundamental pleading deficiencies.”

“Further, it appears Plaintiffs appear to ask this Court to halt core public safety and court functions, with no identified alternative,” the motion continued. This Court should decline to do so and dismiss all claims against Defendants.”

“Prior to the implementation of eCourts, North Carolina courts depended on paper filing, which provided multiple opportunities for error, and made courts slow and inefficient,” O’Brien wrote. “The transition to a digital court management system was a ‘long-term project covering many years and three judicial administrations.’”

The motion questioned plaintiffs’ attempts to block the eCourts rollout from moving forward. “Injunctive relief is available only against conduct violating the Constitution,” O’Brien wrote. “While the Amended Complaint repeatedly uses the conclusory terms ‘unlawful,’ ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘deprivation of liberty,’ it fails to sufficiently allege a violation of the Constitution, much less a violation of the Constitution directly involving Defendants Boyce or Fowler. Plaintiffs don’t even allege a federal right that Defendants Boyce and Fowler have violated.”

The motion referenced a common theme in the lawsuit’s complaints. “The majority of the allegations relate to orders for arrest that appeared valid in eWarrants, but were allegedly either already served, issued in a now dismissed case, recalled, or issued in error,” O’Brien wrote. “Plaintiff blames this upon negligence, either by the Sheriff Defendants and/or the Clerk Defendants, or by defects in the eCourts software.”

“However, detention pursuant to a facially valid warrant later determined to be served, recalled, or issued in error, does not, without more, violate due process, and thus is not constitutionally unlawful,” she added.

The eCourts system “empowers the public with electronic filing and a free online search Portal to display court records and case events,” according to an AOC news release. The system includes eWarrants and Enforcement Mobile, “which integrate law enforcement processes with the court system.” Guide and File helps “self-represented users create and electronically file common legal actions through automated interviews.”