I still recall walking into the Belen Magistrate Court on the day I received notification that I had been appointed to fill the vacant magistrate judge position. I was eager to get a lay of the land and to meet the people I would be working with.
The court manager at the time, Teresa Chavez, gave me a quick tour of the courthouse and I met most of the court clerks and staff that day as well. Beyond being excited to get to work, I took an immediate note of the vast amount of paper files that were everywhere.
There were stacks of files on desks, there were files in vertical holders, there were files that were stacked, and rubber banded together. I also noted that there were so many filing cabinets. They were everywhere and when I asked, they were mostly full. They were in the hallways, they were in conference rooms, and they were in the clerk’s area. I cannot overstate how many cabinets there were.
I quickly learned that magistrate courts ran on paper files. We had a computer program that generated the forms and tracked both events and payments, but the documents of the court were in a file. Files were color coordinated and had case numbers that indicated the case type, the year the case was opened and the parties to the case.
One of my earliest decisions was to ask that the files in the hallways be moved as it created an unsafe work environment should there be a need to quickly egress out of the building. We ended up losing an occupied office to accomplish this, but the safety concerns outweighed that need.
However, that did not stop the number of files from growing.
Quickly it became clear that beyond the number of people that had joined the court since that courthouse was built in 1998, the sheer number of files was going to force us out of that building.
This was underscored by the fact that we could not physically fit additional filing cabinets. Our court manager at that point, Alonzo Garcia, started to find five-drawer cabinets to replace four-drawer cabinets or replacing 25-inch deep cabinets with 29-inch deep ones. This reality, in addition to clerk space, was part of the calculus in pursuing a new courthouse, which thankfully, we are in now.
While we had practical and physical solutions in development, it still did not make a lot of sense that in the 21st century we were so reliant on paper. Two things happened that helped us to make a major shift in court operations. One was a statewide effort in 2018 to make an electronic copy of our paper files in our database system. The second was the opportunity in early 2020 to have all our legacy files transferred to microfiche.
The first was a bit redundant for courts that are not paperless, as the electronic file must be a direct match to the paper file. This was a great step toward the full utilization of the capabilities that exist in our statewide computer system for managing court cases. However, it did little to decrease the number of paper files that were continuing to increase.
While the second, transferring paper files to microfiche, eliminated most file cabinets; again, we were still producing paper files.
During 2020 and the COVID pandemic, the then 13th Judicial District Court CEO, Karl Reifsteck, and the then court operations manager, Philip Romero, challenged magistrates in the district to move toward paperless courts in the same way that the district courts had done years earlier. Our current court manager, Stephanie Trujeque, took up the challenge.
She started by talking to the courts that had made some effort in moving away from paper. In conversing with these courts, we felt that they were still producing more paper than we believed was necessary.
Some of this was the result of a reluctance from judges and staff to work 100 percent electronically, some of this was file retention policy rooted in state law. Bottom-line, if you created a piece of paper, or receive a piece a paper, it had to be retained for varied periods. However, if you never created a piece of paper, and only printed a copy for mailing out to a party to a case, then you did not have to retain a physical copy.
We formulated a plan with the goal that Dec. 31, 2020, would be the last day we created a paper file. Today, all the court’s work is produced electronically in the case management system. It is annotated and/or signed electronically and except for mailing out items, we simply do not print.
Using computer shared drives, law enforcement agencies are also able to share criminal complaints and citations electronically thus eliminating paper copy in the courts. Likewise, we share court work with the district attorney’s office in the same manner.
Stephanie also created a process by which if someone presented a copy at the counter, it was scanned directly into the system and handed back to the filing party. The electronic copy was stamped inside of our case management system and the original, as appropriate, is stamped received and given back to the party at the window. This eliminated much of the paper we had to retain, leaving only items that were mailed to us.
The Legislature helped too. In the 2023 legislative session, HB 180, the “Electronic Storage of State Records” Act created a presumption of authenticity for electronic records, which are deemed to be an original record for all purposes. So now, we do not have to retain any paper that is electronically maintained.
While all of this has been transparent, it has an impact on the public too. Our staff is more efficient, and the “paperwork” side of cases happens very quickly. While I am on the bench, my staff creates documents that require my signature and very often, they are ready for me to electronically sign before I finish a docket.
The result is huge savings in space, time, and money. From 50 filing cabinets to the equivalent of five filing cabinets. From 30-50 cases of paper a year to approximately six cases of paper per year. From time spent building files and filing to ensuring both data and image fidelity in our case management system. Daily, weekly, and other cyclic reports help to find any data errors.
Los Lunas Magistrate Court transitioned to this paperless process in the spring of 2022 and has experienced similar results.
Stephanie and I have recently completed training sessions with magistrate court managers and magistrate judges on the benefits of moving to paperless. We have a lofty goal of seeing our work become the statewide standard in the coming years.
The result is attributable to the challenging work put in by Stephanie, the clerks of the court, and amazing support from internal and external agencies.
(Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.)
Judge John Chavez, guest columnist
Magistrate Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.