Friday, November 19, 2010

TOP STORY > >O’Brien told don’t shred documents

Special to The Leader

All 17 Pulaski County Circuit judges have ordered outgoing Pulaski County Circuit Clerk Pat O’Brien and his staff to “cease and desist from shredding” court documents as part of O’Brien’s two-year effort to move the courthouse into a paperless society.

O’Brien said Friday he likely will appeal the judges’ order to the Arkansas Supreme Court, saying it’s a separation-of-powers issue. “I’ve been elected to the executive branch,” he said. The judges’ order infringes on his decisions on how best to run his office, he said. A draft of an appeal is being reviewed. If he pursues an appeal, it will be filed by the end of the month, O’Brien said.

Pulaski County has 17 judges in its civil, criminal, probate and juvenile courts. Fifteen of the 17 judges joined in a single order Nov. 12 ordering O’Brien to stop shredding the documents. The two others issued an identical order Nov. 15.

Circuit Judge Vann Smith on Friday said he and the other circuit court judges have occasionally voiced their concerns to O’Brien that an ongoing effort in the circuit clerk’s office to transfer court records into electronic files was making their jobs difficult. About a dozen of the judges and Circuit Clerk-elect Larry Crane met with O’Brien on Nov. 10 to ask him to stop shredding documents. O’Brien leaves office Jan. 1.

“My idea at the time was, ‘Unless you’re ordering me to stop, I’m going to keep going,” O’Brien said Friday. “I understand what their argument is. I just disagree with it.”

Smith first approached O’Brien in August and asked him to stop shredding documents until the November election. O’Brien was running for secretary of state at the time. He lost.

The circuit judges weren’t satisfied after last week’s group meeting with O’Brien, Smith said.

“He was asked not to shred. He knew there was a possibility of a court order, and the shredding went on. So we filed.”

The judges’ order says the move extends “its inherent authority over the operation of the courts” and is also supported by circuit judges recently elected. The order took effect immediately.

O’Brien said there’s a “double verification” process to make sure paper documents are correctly scanned and digitalized before they are shredded. “The system works,” he said.

“It’s safe and the best system a human being can create.”

Smith said he and the other judges support moving documents into an electronic form but do not want paper documents to be shredded until all the kinks in the effort are worked out.

“We don’t want to be critical of Pat,” Smith said. “He’s pushing hard for this and working hard. We just want to make sure we get the documents and files we need to do our jobs. If we don’t, we can’t do our work.”

An example of the problems facing judges, Smith said, is the time lapse between when a summons is served and the time that summons is filed electronically and available to judges on their computers.

“Say, a woman files an order of protection. If we can’t find for certain that there’s proof of service, we can’t grant that order,” he said.

Circuit Judge Ellen Brantley on Friday night cited similar problems in self-represented divorce cases. She also noted that circuit clerks “have been saving records for a hundred years” and questioned the need to shred now. She also said it’s rare for the 17 judges to join in on a single order.

“Of course, it’s rare you can get 17 judges to agree on anything,” she said.

O’Brien said going to a “paperless environment at the courthouse” was one of his goals when he was first elected. State law and an Arkansas Supreme Court administrative order give him and other circuit clerks the authority to destroy paper documents once they’re converted to electronic files, he said.

The move electronically will save at least $1.5 million over 10 years, he said, citing a reduction in the cost of paper and staff, plus nearly $100,000 now spent each year in leasing a warehouse to store paper documents.

He said about $425,000 has been spent so far in the effort to transfer the paper files into digital ones.