State officials defend eCourts rollout in federal lawsuit filing

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  • State court officials defend the new eCourts system in a motion this week asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit against eCourts implementation.
  • Ryan Boyce, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, is a named defendant in the case. The state Justice Department is defending Boyce, an AOC colleague, and the Superior Court clerks in Wake and Lee counties.
  • The court filing arrived less than a week after the state court system announced its plan to expand eCourts to 49 counties in 2024.

Lawyers representing North Carolina’s top court administrator defended the new eCourts program in a federal court filing this week. A motion submitted Tuesday asks a judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging eCourts’ implementation.

The motion arrived in US District Court less than a week after state officials unveiled an updated eCourts rollout schedule.

“[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 Ryan Boyce, director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, along with 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.’”

Launched in Wake, Harnett, Johnston, and Lee counties in February 2023, eCourts expanded to Mecklenburg County last October.

“To prepare for the transition, NCAOC conducted ‘over 50 mock court walkthroughs in local courthouses,’ and ‘90 multi-day training sessions in the four pilot counties and Mecklenburg County,’” O’Brien wrote. “Starting on the day of transition, NCAOC ‘provided dedicated on-staff support in each county to assist with questions and to report any software defects or procedural issues.’”

The motion questions 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.

Nearly half of North Carolina’s counties will have access to eCourts by the end of the year. AOC released Friday an updated eCourts rollout plan for 2024.

Forty-nine of the state’s 100 counties will join eCourts by the fall. Remaining counties will join the system in 2025, according to an AOC news release.

Twelve northeastern counties will switch to eCourts on Feb. 5. Ten counties in the north central part of the state will join on April 29. Eleven western counties will follow in the summer, with 11 south central counties slated to join in the fall.

The program’s official name is Enterprise Justice (Odyssey).

“Enterprise Justice has accepted over 600,000 electronic filings and supports tens of thousands of daily searches for digital court records in North Carolina’s largest population centers and five counties, jurisdictions serving nearly 3 million people,” Boyce said in the news release. “We are excited to continue partnering with legal communities across our state to expand digital access to justice for the benefit of all North Carolinians.”   

The system “empowers the public with electronic filing and a free online search Portal to display court records and case events.” 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.”

Defendants filed paperwork this month opposing the plaintiffs’ request to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit.

Critics of North Carolina’s new eCourts rollout added seven plaintiffs in October to the original May 2023 suit filed by two plaintiffs in Wake and Lee counties. The current list of plaintiffs features six Wake County residents and one each from Lee, Mecklenburg, and Guilford counties.

The original suit named the Wake and Lee sheriffs, their insurers, and eCourts vendor Tyler Technologies as defendants. The list of defendants grew to include Boyce, Fowler, Williams, and Thomas.