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The Next Generation of CM/ECF

Over the past decade, the federal judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system has dramatically streamlined and simplified federal court case filing, management and access. Now a group consisting of federal judges and court staff is thinking about the future of that system and asking: “If we could change CM/ECF in any way, what would we want the next generation system to look like?”

Fifteen years ago, the courts were under considerable pressure to replace a slew of deteriorating legacy systems. “Those antiquated systems were held together with bandages and bubble gum, and we replaced them with CM/ECF—with great success,” said Noel Augustyn, assistant director of the Office of Court Administration at the Administrative Office (AO). By 1996, a prototype CM/ECF system was being tested and rolled out in waves to district courts, bankruptcy courts and now to the appellate courts. Today, all district and bankruptcy courts, and 10 of the 12 geographically-based courts of appeals have implemented CM/ECF.

CM/ECF essentially opens the clerk’s office 24/7 to everyone, down the street or around the world. If you’re a member of the public who is viewing case documents from home, an attorney filing a case from his or her office, a judge accessing case files remotely, or a clerk of court whose dockets now include electronic documents filed by attorneys and the court, you know what the CM/ ECF system’s electronic filing and docket management system can do—and how it has revolutionized the federal court system. Some 33 million case files currently are on CM/ECF systems, and more than 400,000 attorneys and others have filed documents using it.

Today, the AO, with the assistance of the courts, is developing the next generation of CM/ECF. Judges, chambers staff, clerks of court and clerk’s office staff are examining court processes and procedures to develop functional requirements for the judiciary’s future case management system. Broad input is being solicited from those who have hands-on experience. The Judicial Conference committees are asking users:

  • How do judges and law clerks envision the next generation of CM/ECF?
  • What bells and whistles would make life easier for clerks of courts?
  • What about CM/ECF’s external stakeholders, such as consumer groups, attorneys, filers and government agencies?
  • What changes in CM/ECF would they like to see?

Surveys and focus groups are answering these questions.

Work on defining the functional requirements of the district and bankruptcy courts is already several months along. Several ideas already are on the drawing board. For the appellate courts, it’s a new case management tool for judges and chambers staff and easier access to the original case record in district court systems. On the district and bankruptcy side, ease of use is one of the biggest requirements. There’s talk of a streamlined CM/ECF user interface accessed by iPhone or BlackBerry smartphones. “Most important,” adds William McCool, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, “is to make any system simple for judges and staff and our external audience to use, and to make it efficient and effective. That is, one that minimizes keystrokes to navigate between screens. If we do that, judges will use it to create text orders and other means to quickly dispose of matters, enhancing the administration of justice by speeding up the processing of cases—and thereby reducing the cost of litigation.”

Please assist the federal courts (district and bankruptcy) by providing your comments and suggestions for the next generation system for federal court case filing. Contact Bill Terry with the district court at or Roberta Kostrow with the bankruptcy court at with any comments or questions.

For more information, visit

Electronic Filing Transitions from PDF to PDF/A

The court’s electronic case management and filing system (CM/ECF) has required documents to be filed in portable document format (PDF) since its inception. As technology evolves, the federal judiciary recognizes a need to move toward a more controlled standard to provide for enhanced security and improve archiving and preservation of electronic case documents.

Although CM/ECF accepts PDF and PDF/A documents today, upcoming enhancements to our system will require that all documents be filed in PDF/A format. At this time, we anticipate this requirement will take effect sometime in 2011. As the court prepares for this transition, our plan includes awareness and training components for the legal community.

Electronic Public Access in the Federal Courts

Bankruptcy Judge J. Rich Leonard―an original member of the Judiciary’s Electronic Public Access Working Group and chair of the Next Generation CM/ECF Additional Stakeholder Functional Requirements Group―was featured in the August 2010 issue of The Third Branch about his role in the Electronic Public Access Program.

When asked about the findings of a recently conducted assessment of the Electronic Public Access program, including PACER, Judge Leonard found the most reassuring thing “was a remarkably high level of satisfaction” and how users “couldn’t practice law in remote locations . . . without it.”

Judge Leonard went on to say that “the assessment produced a great deal of information about what various user groups like and don’t like about our changes to CM/ECF will be required to implement some of the key findings from the assessment.”

He concluded: “National implementation of the digital audio initiative will, quite literally, bring the courtroom to a user’s desktop or MP3 player.”

Click here to read the interview in its entirety.

Reprinted with permission from The Third Branch

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