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WV Supreme Court creates unified operating system for circuit clerks, plans test in 14 counties

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CHARLESTON, WV -

The West Virginia Supreme Court has established a unified operating system for all county circuit clerks' offices to address a bigger problem.

That problem was a confusing system for numbering cases, which was shown by a case in Kanawha County when a person was erroneously released from jail.

As part of the new, unified system, the state Supreme Court is contracting with Morgantown company Software Systems to provide the system in the 14 pilot counties of: Berkeley, Braxton, Cabell, Hampshire, Harrison, Jefferson, Lewis, Lincoln, Marion, Morgan, Ohio, Randolph, Upshur and Wood. The pilot counties should be up and running within the next year, according to information from the Supreme Court.

Counties will not have to pay for installation, maintenance or operation of the unified information system. It will be funded by the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's report on the issue also addressed the Kanawha County case when Jeremy Carter was released from jail before his attempted kidnapping charge was heard.

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster said the release was a misinterpretation of her order, which she said directed a psychiatric evaluation, rather than the kidnapping charge.

According to the Supreme Court's report, a certain case number was not assigned to the attempted kidnapping charge until the motion for psychiatric examination was filed in that case. So, the number was not assigned to the motion itself, the report states.

"Seeing that it was an order dismissing the case, the circuit clerk's office began to draw up a jail release form which would be necessary to have the defendant Jeremy Carter released from jail," the report states. "To this end, the clerk's office took steps to implement its practice of dismissing not only the case number on the order but also all cases associated with it.

"However, this practice is not supported or authorized by statute, court rule, or even a provision of the circuit court clerk's manual."

However, soon after Carter was released from jail, Webster issued a warrant and Carter was arrested.

"Moreover, it is obvious that there exists serious confusion as to the exact meaning of the (criminal miscellaneous) numbers, and confusion on exactly how and when such numbers are assigned by the clerk's office," the report states.

The Carter case was not the only time an order created problems, the report states.

From Feb. 29-March 8, Webster issued 28 orders, some of them to correct previous order mistakes, the report states.

"After interacting with the circuit clerk's office as well as clerk Cathy Gatson herself, the authors of this report cannot help but be sympathetic to Judge Webster since the system is abstruse and its number of cases, motions orders, etc, counterintuitive," the report states.

"It is somewhat understandable why Judge Webster did not comprehend the synecdochic nature of the numbering system — where any single number that is part of the list of numbers contained in a single case implies the whole case: it is not a written policy," the report further stated.

According to the report, other users of the Kanawha County Circuit clerk's office process have found them confusing, calling it an "error magnet." 

"Making matters still more confusing for the public is the fact that each county has arrived at its own versions of a system, which is only generally outlined in the current circuit clerk's manual, a manual in need of rewriting since it evolved by accounting for the various county systems and consequently, contains contradictions," the report states.

The court stated that errors were not major enough to constitute ethics violations and said parties should do a "better more contemplative error-free job with all court documents."

However, the court added that it wanted to fix the potential for future errors by creating a unified informational system.

"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," the court's report states.

Webster released the following statement in response to the decision:

"The Supreme Court's Report underscores the inherent difficulties that circuit judges and circuit clerks routinely encounter in the administration of a judicial circuit's docket," her statement said. "A judge's criminal docket alone generates a substantial number of court orders which must be processed by the circuit clerk's office on a daily basis. 

"To that end, I am glad the Supreme Court's findings re-affirm that any mistake or error was procedural in nature, and that the same was addressed and corrected in an expeditious manner. 

"I also welcome its further conclusion that there was no evidence of any ethical or legal wrongdoing. Finally, I applaud the Supreme Court's announcement of its new Unified, E-Filng system, and am glad that this regrettable episode will serve as a catalyst for much needed modernizations of the circuit clerk filing and docket systems throughout the state. "