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Bringing technology to the courthouse

WEST Virginia's judiciary has taken to the Internet like a dolphin to water. Every court opinion and dissent is available online for free dating back to September 1991 - with clerks usually posting the opinions as they are released.

This is a great service to the public, especially in a state whose population is scattered along a very rugged terrain.

The trip from Martinsburg to Charleston takes five hours, which means no lawyer from the Eastern Panhandle is going to drive by the court to pick up a copy of a decision on the way home from work. A few seconds on the computer provides instant access the post office cannot deliver.

Everyone in the state benefits from this and the legislative branch has followed suit by posting proposed legislation online, along with changes made in committees and the final version, if passed. This is good government that serves the public.

But the state judiciary is a tough act to follow. West Virginia allowed cameras in the courtrooms in the 1980s. Its adoption of video arraignments allowed the state to replace its 55 county jails with 10 regional jails. Indeed, officials in Los Angeles cited West Virginia's success in pushing for their adoption and use of this technology.

Now the state's high court has begun work that allows attorneys to file lawsuits electronically. The federal courts have used such a system for some time, but given the more complex nature and diversity of actions at the state court level, the state has to use a different system.

This week, Fairmont attorney J. Scott Tharp of Tharp, Liotta & Yokum became the first lawyer to file a lawsuit electronically. This should quickly become a common occurrence.

Not all the information in a lawsuit will become public but this service will provide the public with better access to courthouse records.

Citizens can debate whether West Virginia's reputation as a judicial hellhole has merit, but no one can deny that the state's courts have over the last three decades made the courts more accessible and accountable, and have left the public better informed.


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