By Vicki Smith
The state Supreme Court said Thursday it is creating a centralized e-filing system for West Virginia’s 55 circuit clerks as it tries to fix widespread problems with record-keeping that caused the mistaken release of an inmate earlier this year.
An eight-page order issued by Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said that neither Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster nor Circuit Clerk Cathy Gatson violated any ethical rules. But the accidental release of an inmate in March highlighted widespread flaws in a nonsensical filing system that lawyers call an “error magnet” and that Benjamin said is not limited to the state’s largest county.
“Simply warning any judge or staff members to be careful is clearly not adequate to fix future problems if the systems themselves are so abstruse, so non-transparent and so needlessly complicated that they almost generate a certain level of mistakes,” the order says. “The court wishes to remedy that bigger problem.”
Benjamin said Software Systems of Morgantown will run the new system, starting with 14 pilot counties that will be online within the next year. That company will partner with On-Line Information Services of Mobile, Ala., and work with the courts and the State Bar to train lawyers before e-filing becomes mandatory.
Currently, four vendors serve the 55 counties with different systems, but Benjamin said all will eventually use a universal operating system. The state will fund installation, maintenance and operation, he said, and the court will appoint a committee to create and improve the system.
In March, kidnapping suspect Jeremy Carter was released from the South Central Regional Jail on an order that Webster said she didn’t mean to issue. Rather, she was trying to dismiss a related but separate motion for a psychiatric evaluation.
Benjamin’s report says that investigators found the clerk’s office changed case numbers in keeping with local practice “that is not supported or authorized by statute, court rule or even a provision of the Circuit Court Clerk’s Manual.”
When Webster learned of the erroneous release, she promptly ordered the suspect re-arrested.
But the report says it was part of a larger pattern of problems: Between Feb. 28 and March 8, Webster wrote 28 orders, some of which were issued to correct mistakes in previous orders.
Interviews with circuit clerk staff make it “abundantly clear” the judge didn’t understand the case-numbering system, and after speaking to Gatson, Benjamin wrote, “the authors of this report cannot help but be sympathetic to Judge Webster since the system is abstruse and its numbering of cases ... counterintuitive.”
Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury determined Webster’s actions don’t merit a complaint to the office of disciplinary counsel.
“Indeed, her goal in issuing the cluster of orders was laudable: She wanted to update her docket, clearing it of extraneous matters,” the report says.
“It is somewhat understandable why Judge Webster did not comprehend the synecdochic nature of the numbering system — where any single number that is part of the list of numbers contained in a single case implies the whole case,” it says. “It is not a written policy.”
First to participate will be Berkeley, Braxton, Cabell, Hampshire, Harrison, Jefferson, Lewis, Lincoln, Marion, Morgan, Ohio, Randolph, Upshur and Wood counties.