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Supreme Court awards $380K in grants to Mahoning courts

Legal News Reporter

Published: July 22, 2021

Five Mahoning County courts have been awarded a total of over $380,000 in annual Ohio Supreme Court technology grants.
The Supreme Court awarded more than $8.65 million in these grants in 2021, funding 143 total projects across the state.
That total was double the amount of grants awarded in 2020 as a response to the stresses put on the court system by the COVID pandemic, according to a statement released by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.
Court of Appeals
The 7th District Court of Appeals received a grant of $63,520.73 that will go toward upgrading the basic computer, laptop, scanner, printer and other staff technology around the court.
“The old equipment was just worn out,” said Judge Gene Donofrio. “This is a very versatile grant that will improve the equipment for all of our employees.”
But beyond that, the new equipment was put in place to accommodate a number of serious upgrades to the court’s management system, said Judge Donofrio.
In a separate program apart for the technology grants, the Ohio Supreme Court is rolling out a statewide case management system specific to appellate courts called C-Track (from Thomson Reuter).
Judge Donofrio said that the 7th District was one of three appellate courts that were beta sites for C-Track before it is rolled out to the rest of the state.
The new equipment was necessary to run C-Track. And new scanners were also necessary to convert all the court’s documents to digital format for the new system.
Probate Court
Mahoning County Probate Court received one of the largest technology grants awarded in the state: $200,000 to help purchase a new court management system.
The grant was only slightly smaller than the largest award, which was $250,000 to the Erie County Municipal Court—also for a CMS.
The Supreme Court, in fact, gave out a total of ten $200,000 grants in awarding $8.6 million to the courts.
Probate Judge Robert N. Rusu said that two issues influenced the 2021 awards—the pandemic and access to justice.
“They really focused on access to justice in making sure that the courts had funds necessary to increase accessibility,” he said.
The system the court currently uses is well beyond inadequate, Judge Rusu said.
“We are using a system from the 1990’s. We get the updates, but the system is just no doing what we need. It not going to take us into the future.”
Judge Rusu, like some Ohio judges in smaller common pleas courts, said he is his own clerk (although he does not attend state clerk meetings).
He is personally responsible for both how the court functions and for how it interacts with lawyers and the public.
Probate Court also has different needs from other courts as well, he said.
For one thing, the new system has to be HIPAA compliant because there is medical information in guardianships and other actions.
Judge Rusu said that the court has not yet decided which CMS it will purchase, but that it also has another $100,000 set aside in court funds earmarked for technology to add to the Supreme Court’s grant.
Whatever the court decides, the system will look as far into the future as possible in design and function.
“We have to look at the court prospectively,” he said.
Domestic Relations
Mahoning County Domestic Relations Court received grants for $36,203.71 and $7,778.54.
Both grants will be combined to purchase components for an electronic filing system, said Judge Beth Smith.
There are two different grants because the components come from two different vendors.
“We have wanted e-filing in this court for a long time,” she said. When COVID hit, I realized how much attorneys and self-representing litigants need to come down to court—especially in domestic violence cases.”
At the same time, the need for pandemic protocols required more paperwork, more mailings, more printing, she said.
Judge Smith said that she called a meeting with the clerks and IT, all of whom said that e-filing and (eventually) a paperless court were solutions that were “desperately needed.”
Besides the Supreme Court grant, the county commissioners had already given the court COVID funds to help get through the crisis.
“We are so excited to finally have e-filing,” said Judge Smith, who thanked the Supreme court for making it happen.
Campbell Municipal Court
Campbell Municipal Court received a $42,623.66 grant, which the court will use to install a fiber optic lines that will primarily be used for remote arraignments, said Clerk of Courts Sheri Levendis.
“The new lines will connect our office to the sheriff’s department and ties in the police station and county arraignments,” she said. “It takes away the need to use the internet to communicate with law enforcement.”
She said that, eventually, the entire city will be connected with one fiber optic network.
This grant piggybacks on a grant last year from the same source that set up the ability of the court to engage remote arraignments, said Levendis.
Struthers Municipal Court received a grant for $32,915.00 for upgrades to their CMS.