The state Supreme Court plans to roll out an online system for the state's 55 circuit courts after finding a confusing case numbering system was partly to blame for a Kanawha circuit judge's mistakes, one of which included freeing a man accused of kidnapping.
Steve Canterbury, Supreme Court administrator, said initially the plan was to switch to the online digital filing system in the next calendar year, but that the case number confusion in Kanawha County prompted action.
In March, the Supreme Court ordered an inquiry into Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster's office, the administration of her docket and the procedures used in Kanawha Circuit Clerk Cathy Gatson's office.
The findings were released Thursday in a detailed report.
The eight-page report clears Webster and Gatson of any ethical wrongdoing, but says inconsistencies in how cases were numbered led to the mistakes. Investigators found such inconsistencies in several circuit clerks' offices.
"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," it stated.
"But these errors have brought the bigger matter of the varying processing systems in the State's circuit clerks' offices to a head," the report said.
The calls for inquiry came after Webster mistakenly dismissed the case against Jeremy Carter, an accused kidnapper, thereby releasing him from jail. He was re-arrested on the same charge about a week later.
Webster signed an order Feb. 28 meant to dismiss a single action in Carter's case - that he receive a psychiatric evaluation - but Gatson's office interpreted it to mean the case as a whole was dismissed.
The mistake was caught March 7, but Carter already was out of South Central Regional Jail.
The report showed that from Feb. 28 to March 8, Webster wrote 28 orders, some of which were issued to correct mistakes in earlier orders.
On Feb. 28, Webster dismissed six cases, but then entered amended orders for those cases to instead be stayed, or suspended, until further notice, according to the report.
Investigators wrote it was "abundantly clear" Webster didn't understand the case numbering system used by the circuit clerk's office.
"Indeed, her goal in issuing the cluster of orders was laudable: she wanted to update her docket, clearing it of extraneous matters," the report said. "However, she did not fully understand the Circuit Clerk's numbering system."
The investigator said Webster's confusion was understandable.
Gatson noted to the investigator that the deputy circuit clerks assigned to the judges understand the system and that it had been sufficient for the judges in the past.
"Nevertheless, many users of the Kanawha County Circuit Clerk's Office processes are confused by them," the report stated. "Some of that office's users have called it 'an error magnet' in the way that motions can result in the creation of separate case numbers and several different are often used in reference to a single case and, further, that separate case numbers can actually appear to be separate cases when in fact they are not."
The high court insisted in the report that judges and circuit clerk staff be fully informed about what they do and write in their duties. It also asserts it's vital that the doors of communication are open to minimize errors.
"Since the errors do not rise to the level of an ethics violation, however, the Court at this time can only alert all parties to do a better, more contemplative, error-free job with all court documents," the report said.
Gatson said Thursday she had never heard anyone use the phrase "error magnet" in reference to her office or the case numbering system.