Joint Judiciary Committee Report
By: Pete Obermueller, WCCA Executive Director
Yesterday in Sheridan the Joint Judiciary Committee discussed draft legislation to delineate responsibilities for the funding of IT in courts across the state. You can find the draft of that legislation linked here, and also on dropbox. As a reminder of the background, the Judicial branch through the Supreme Court has been conducting IT assessments in courtrooms in all counties, and is seeking to bring all courthouses up to a certain baseline of technological capabilities for judges, attorneys, and juries. The legislature granted the courts an increase in their court automation fee in order to fund these upgrades.
In the spring, the Supreme Court sought a meeting with the WCCA’s Government Operations committee to discuss a framework that ultimately led to this draft. In essence the bill requires that counties are responsible for the necessary infrastructure up to the wall (wiring, broadband, outlets, ports, etc.), and the courts would be responsible for purchasing and maintenance of the hardware in the rooms. There were Commissioners from Sweetwater, Sublette, Laramie, Converse, Natrona, Sheridan, Carbon, Albany and Teton who were part of this discussion. The general framework was agreed to by this working group, understanding that the full WCCA membership had not yet weighed in.
After presenting the bill draft to the committee, there was lengthy discussion about its purpose and goals. As usual, these quotes are paraphrased, not verbatim.
Rep. Kirkbride: After hearing from the courts I’m interested in knowing how the Commissioners feel about this. I understand that your working group has signed off on this but do you think Commissioners across the state will find this acceptable?
Answer (Pete): I need to clarify that the full Association does not yet have a position on this draft. We have to reach a 70% approval threshold of all Commissioners before we can get to that and we haven’t had an actual bill draft to discuss until just this week. That said a broadly representative group of Commissioners did take part in these discussions. In general this group is looking at this as a helpful way to limit the amount of potential financial obligation the counties have for continual purchases and IT upgrades in each courtroom. This language may need further tweaks and between now and your next meeting all the Commissioners and likely County Attorneys will look at this language and make further suggestions.
Sen. Kinskey: I want to understand if this language settles this issue once and for all. The language talks specifically about equipment in judge’s chambers, jury rooms, etc., but it says nothing about having a separate server room. Who is responsible for paying for HVAC upgrades to keep separate server rooms cool, etc.?
Answer (Supreme Court): We don’t anticipate being able to solve all of those individual issues without separate MOU’s with each individual county.
Answer (Pete): There really is no way for legislation to be perfectly prescriptive and to solve 100% of the issues for all time. What this language does is narrow’s the scope of what is one the table for both counties and the courts in coming to an agreement of providing a suitable courthouse. The language in this draft that requires consultation with the Commissioners on purchases that requires alterations to a courthouse is very important to us so that hardware purchases are not completely driving courthouse renovations. We have established MOU’s in lots of cases with state agencies and others, and believe that is a helpful approach.
Rep. Olsen: How long will it take to establish these MOU’s and to move the project forward. Technology is obsolete in just a few years, does this unreasonable delay these projects?
Answer (Supreme Court): We believe we can accomplish much of this in about 4 years, but understand that situations my change and cost of technology might change.
Answer (Pete): The issue you raise of technology changes, obsolesce, etc. exists today under the current language that counties are responsible for a “suitable” courthouse, but we have no definition of suitable. This language helps us move forward on IT upgrades with helpful guidelines on how to manage this shared space.
Sen. Christensen: It seems to me that the notion of a suitable courthouse changes with time. A suitable jail wouldn’t be just a room with bars anymore, it is much more than that. It seems like the counties have the responsibility right now for all of this under the definition of suitable, and it will be a challenge to shift some of that to the state.
Answer (Pete): We agree that we have the obligation to maintain the courthouse and that obligation changes over time. IT is becoming a larger and larger part of our budgets, and just like the state our budgets are going down as well. The law as is leaves too much to debate about what is considered suitable. For example, one judge in one county believes that suitable means the county is obligated to purchase laptops for every juror. We disagree. This is one way to help us move forward toward better equipped courthouses with proper responsibilities for each entity.
Following this discussion the committee voted on 3 motions to amend the bill. This first was technical, and passed. The second was an amendment to remove the prescriptive list of items counties would be responsible for, leaving it much more open ended. That motion failed. The third was an amendment to remove the language that the courts would follow the minimum standards in upgrades as the bringer of the motion felt it was simply narrative, and not actually meaningful to the establishment of standards. That motion prevailed.
The bill was then advanced to their November meeting for further clarification. The Supreme Court was tasked by the committee with establishing an outline of their workplan and the costs associated, and I assured the committee that we would spend the intervening months looking at the language and offering suggestions if necessary.