I continue to be amazed that a substantial amount of court resistance to migration to Enterprise Content Management (ECM) boils down to the sense that electronic files and documents just cannot be as safe as paper documents.  Security should be a primary concern, yet as I have consistently stressed (see my white paper, “Legal Considerations of E-Signature”, ) a robust ECM system implemented with proper due diligence provides immeasurably more security for court files than hard copy.

Back in the 1980s, when I worked as a Deputy District Attorney, I referred to our file retrieval system as “Norma Knows”.  That was because Norma, our receptionist, invariably knew the location of every file at any given time.  And it was a good thing – because there was no backup system.  

The years and decades roll by; and many things have changed.   And then, at the most unexpected times, I get reminded of that long ago time, and the debt I and others owe Norma for keeping our fat out of so many fires.

So it was that as I perused news accounts of the currently most entertaining competition of the season. (I refer, of course to the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.) I had to chuckle at the following report regarding the court records of one of Newt Gingrich’s divorces:

After initially being told that the divorce documents were sealed, CNN   
eventually obtained the folder containing the filings in the divorce, which had been stashed away for years in a Carroll County, GA court clerk’s drawer. Retired clerk Kenneth Skinner told CNN his deputy took Gingrich’s file out of the public records room around 1994, “when he (Gingrich) became the center of attention,” because Skinner feared tampering and theft.

“During these years, you had to make sure those papers were there,” Skinner said. “People could go in those files and get things out. We didn’t have enough security to control it.”

Current Carroll County Clerk of Court Alan Lee said he called the retired deputy clerk, who told him where to find the papers, after CNN began looking for them just recently.1

The good news here, in support of the “Hard Copy As Secure” position, is that the system apparently worked in this case.  Without getting too political, let’s stipulate that concern regarding potential for tampering was not unreasonable in this instance.  The file was indeed secured, through remarkable foresight, about 17 years before one of the involved parties became a presidential candidate.

Relocating the file to a clerk’s drawer took advantage of the non-automated system’s capacity for removing documents and files without leaving any trace of who removed it, when, or what was done with it.  Indeed, it was possible, inexpensive, and easy to keep its very existence a secret – even from the court itself.  A properly implemented electronic document management system simply could not allow that.

The retrieval system worked as well.  Tracking down the retired deputy clerk, while perhaps not quite as efficient as an ECM document search, seems to have been an effective retrieval algorithm.

Apparently, “Sealed” is a term which, when applied to court records, means “unavailable for reasons we do not have to explain”.   Slightly different than the meaning I had heretofore assumed; but oh, well.

A few unanswered questions do arise.  First, where is Norma now?  Because who knows who she foresaw might run for president some day, and hid the files in some place known only to her?  Second, what ELSE is in those long forgotten drawers?  Could there be some clue as to other, future public figures?

And third – How reliable are all the REST of the files – the ones the courts don’t “have the security to control”?  Well, I think we considered THAT situation in a previous posting.

Need any more reasons to move your court to ECM?

[1] http://www.wtae.com/r/30075858/detail.html

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