If you reach for the checkbook and an aspirin when faced with a mountain of bills, you’re not Cindy Jensen in the District of Nevada. When Jensen had a pile of paper voucher payments to process for Criminal Justice Act attorneys, she looked for a better solution. Thanks to the problem-solving skills of Jensen, and a lot of input from Nevada judges and court staff, members of the bar, and a few programmers, the Judiciary has a national electronic CJA voucher processing system, with a roadmap in place for its deployment and continued development.
In early 2014, AO Director Judge John D. Bates announced that the District of Nevada’s eVoucher product would serve as the automated CJA voucher processing and management system for the Judiciary.
“The implementation of an effective national CJA eVoucher processing system is a high priority for the Judiciary,” Bates said, “particularly in the difficult financial environment we now face.” By March, plans had been formalized in which the District of Nevada and the AO would partner to transition eVoucher to a national product and continue its development. As an important part of the collaborative process, input and participation would be encouraged from Judiciary stakeholders on policy, functionality, and operations practices.
Judge Catherine Blake, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, already sees advantages to a Judiciary-wide system. “Nationally, an electronic voucher processing system would give the Committee more accurate and timely projections of future payments and obligations,” said Blake. “That will help us prepare our appropriations request to Congress and responsibly manage the overall defender services program.”
As Nevada Clerk of Court Lance Wilson recalls, it was around 2008 when Jensen, the court’s chief deputy clerk, approached him with ideas for improving how CJA vouchers were handled. The vouchers are submitted by court-appointed attorneys for payment for representation of persons financially unable to obtain adequate representation.
“She said, ‘Everything else is automated, but we have stacks of paper on our CJA administrator’s desk and attorneys are sending in hard copies of vouchers. We’re sending hard copies to judges, and then sending hard copies to the circuit. And we’re supposed to be a paperless, electronic court? I think we can automate this.’ So I gave her the green light,” Wilson said.
It was Nevada’s goal to produce an electronic voucher processing system that was flexible enough to accommodate the different ways courts operate.
“We started by talking with the people who actually submit CJA vouchers,” Jensen said. “We talked with some of our panel members and our judges. We reached out to attorneys who were especially computer literate. We asked, ‘What do we need? What do we want to accomplish with this?’ We started mapping out our processes, but with the underlying philosophy that every court handles things differently.”
In April 2010, the court demonstrated a working prototype at a Ninth Circuit conference. “That’s when people started to find us,” said Wilson. The Nevada court worked closely with the Ninth Circuit’s Executive Office to bring eighteen courts, mainly in the Ninth Circuit, onto the system. Eighteen more courts are in the process of implementing the system, with support from the AO. What’s the chief attraction of the new eVoucher processing system?
Simply, it eliminates paper and manual processing. An attorney electronically sends a voucher to the court. The court reviews and audits electronically, then sends it to the judge electronically, and when appropriate it is electronically sent to the circuit for review and approval. It can also be sent back to the clerk’s office or back to the attorney if a clarification or modification is needed. The eVoucher system saves time, and eliminates photocopying and mailing.
Peter Schweda is an attorney who began using eVoucher when the Eastern District of Washington adopted the system soon after it was rolled it out.
“It’s very user-friendly,” Schweda said. “It does the good things like automatically check the compensation or mileage rates and calculate the totals. It also speeds things up. I’ve seen a diagram that showed the number of stops a voucher would make in the old system. I think it was something like 26 stops. So the eVoucher system eliminates a lot of those steps.”
For some attorneys, it’s also a more efficient record-keeping system, tracking hours even before a voucher is submitted to the court.
Said Jensen, “I remember one attorney’s secretary asking, ‘so there won’t be little yellow stickies on everything anymore?’ So many of these criminal practitioners are sole practitioners without a big firm’s access to an automated billing system. The advantage for these attorneys is now they’re keeping track of everything electronically.”
The eVoucher system also provides judges with information needed to help them manage their cases.
“We’re very big on budgeting cases here,” said Jensen, “as are a lot of courts. The system gives judges more control in monitoring the requests for and expenditures of funds. Requests and payments can be checked across an entire district or circuit, and multiple cases. We can track payment data, for example when a case is reaching a certain threshold for payments.”
As part of cost control, the Nevada court uses some of eVouchers customization abilities to review submission of a voucher, to see if there are sufficient funds in the account to cover it. Attorneys, instead of submitting one large voucher at the end of a case, submit interim vouchers. Attorneys receive more regular payments and the court has more tools to manage billing and the expenditure of funds.
The eVoucher system will transition to a national program in a collaborative process using resources throughout the Judiciary. A project management team, with members from the AO and the Nevada court, will manage the development and deployment processes during the transition. A development team in the District of Nevada will work with personnel at the AO. The AO will provide deployment resources consistent with the implementation of a national information technology product. The collaboration between the AO and Nevada will provide the support and resources needed to assist the project management, development, and deployment teams. “Cindy is a visionary,” said Wilson. “She sees things and says this is what we have to do.” Jensen demurs. For her, it’s all about a problem solved: “It’s having the people who actually deal with the issues, be the ones who come up with the solutions.”