Iowa Judicial Branch Newsletter
May 24, 2018
Lady Justice
  Printer Friendly Version
          Go Back
     The Most Ambitious Undertaking

EDMS: Iowa Judicial Branch Most Ambitious Undertaking Ever 

"There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly."                 R. Buckminster Fuller—American architect and systems theorist. 

The milestones are numerous and at times have seemed insurmountable.  And the path to the final destination of the journey has been long and often rocky.  Such is the way, however, for fundamental or sweeping changes to the justice system, an introspective system that—whether by design or happenstance or both—is often inexorably slow to change.  The Iowa Judicial Branch, however, has proved again and again to be at the forefront of embracing emerging technologies to provide better access to justice and a more efficient court system.  EDMS is a crowning point of this unwavering commitment to providing better service to Iowans. 

All Case Types, All Users 

On July 1, 2015, the Iowa Supreme Court announced completion of statewide implementation of Iowa's electronic document management system (EDMS), six months ahead of schedule.  While a handful of states and the federal court system may have pioneered electronic court filing, Iowa's EDMS stands out as first-in-the-nation in many respects. The Iowa Judicial Branch's embrace of technology again places it at the forefront of state court systems throughout the land. 

Iowa is the first to fully integrate self-represented litigant filing into its electronic system.  Iowa is the first to electronically integrate a trial court system with the appellate court system.  Iowa is the first to have crafted a set of electronic filing rules before design of the technological system had even begun.  Iowa is the first to have incorporated a comprehensive set of electronic procedure rules into its court rules.  Iowa is the first to have an electronic system that everyone who comes into contact with the court system uses—all filers, attorneys, judges, court personnel, law enforcement and other government agencies, members of the public, hospitals, abstractors, media, Native American tribes, literally every stakeholder and constituency of the justice system there is—for every court matter.  And it is likely to be many years before any state or justice system is able to replicate what we—here in Iowa—have accomplished.  

Embracing Technology  

To appreciate the scope of the EDMS project, one could travel back in time to 1987, when then Chief Justice Ward Reynoldson announced a multi-year plan to "bring the judicial branch into the computer age."  Chief Justice Reynoldson was referring to development of the Iowa Court Information System (ICIS), a case management system that would bring a computer to every district court office, and eventually grow into an integrated network linking with district court administrator offices and with the state court administrator's office. 

The ICIS project began in 1988, but six years on only 28 counties had become "computerized."  Judicial branch leaders were convinced, however, that computer automation was the most important tool for managing rapidly increasing court dockets and continued pressing for completion of the project.  After ten years in the making, full implementation of ICIS was completed in September 1997.  This accomplishment marked the end of paper docket books in use in Iowa courthouses for over 150 years.  Suddenly, the Iowa court system was cutting edge, becoming one of just a few states with a statewide integrated computer network. At the time, former Chief Justice Arthur McGiverin astutely predicted that "Our computer network will serve as a foundation for the technological improvements that will be necessary to carry us into the twenty-first century." 

ICIS not only linked the clerk of court offices and state court administration in a statewide network, it also electronically linked the court system with state government entities such as the department of human services, department of public safety, and the department of revenue and finance. 

Before ICIS was fully integrated into the judicial branch, Larry Murphy, Director of Information Systems and Technology for the judicial branch, and other judicial branch leaders had been envisioning far more.  In the mid-1990s, Larry Murphy began attending national conferences where electronic filing was a hot topic.  Combined with a "field trip" to the Principal Financial Group to view its electronic claims processing, the potential of electronic filing for the court system was clear. 

Chief Justice Arthur McGiverin, 1996:  "Most of Iowa's courthouses are bursting at the seams with old records. Records are stacked from floor to ceiling, piled in attics and basements, and crammed in garages and storage buildings. Counties are simply running out of space. Records stored in poor conditions are deteriorating quickly."    


In his 1997 condition of the judiciary address, Chief Justice McGiverin envisaged the "long-term solution [to record storage problems] will require electronic data management systems, commonly called EDMS."  Although ICIS provided the early foundation for what would become EDMS, there were other building-block breakthroughs to come along the way. 

In 1998, the branch christened the Iowa Judicial Branch Website, providing for the first time online access to a wealth of public information about the justice system and branch operations, serving the public, the media, the bar, and court personnel. 

In January 2002, the court advanced public access to the court system with announcement of Iowa Courts Online—online access to statewide court information.  The move made possible free Internet access to basic court information such as child support payments, criminal and traffic records, and case dispositions from all 99 counties and the appellate courts.  In the following September the Iowa Judicial Branch announced an expanded service to access more detailed court information for a $25 monthly fee.  About a year later, the judicial branch expanded court access again with the addition of ePay, a convenient system for electronic payment of fines and court fees assessed for scheduled and simple misdemeanor offenses without having to travel to the county courthouse. 

Also in 2003, the Iowa Judicial Branch and the Iowa Executive Branch began a joint project to develop the Iowa Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS).  CJIS provides real-time connection to promote fast and accurate information sharing among the various law enforcement agencies, the court, and local officials.  In August 2010, then Governor Chet Culver and Chief Justice Marsha Ternus would announce yet another national award for Iowa's justice system, this one bestowed on CJIS by the national Integrated Justice Information System Institute (IJIS).  According to a news release from the Iowa Department of Human Rights, IJIS called Iowa CJIS a "stellar example of what true, effective information sharing can accomplish at a statewide level."  Chief Justice Ternus attributed credit for the "prestigious award" to the "CJIS Advisory Committee and project staff" working out of the Iowa Department of Human Rights, Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. 

Though the supreme court recognizes the current judicial branch website perhaps could be made more user friendly, in 2006 and again in 2009 the website received prestigious recognition for providing excellent customer service and access to justice by garnering the international Justice Served Top-10 Court Website Award following the sponsor's review of over 3,500 court-related websites throughout the world.  The website provides vast amounts of information concerning the justice system and court services and serves a variety of audiences including attorneys, pro se litigants, court personnel, and the public.    

Website hits 

For calendar year 2016, the number of Iowa Courts Online and Iowa Judicial Branch Website combined hits totaled 607 million.  By comparison for the same year, the total number of hits for was 322 million. 

In July 2007, when more than 60,000 Iowans were annually called for jury duty across the state, the Iowa courts announced another technological advancement—eJuror, an online service enabling Iowans with a summons jury number to use the Internet to respond to the summons, complete a standard jury questionnaire, ask to reschedule jury duty, access helpful information about jury service, and find email contact information for every clerk of court office. 

Starting and Restarting the Most Ambitious Undertaking 

On separate occasions during their tenures, both Chief Justices Louis Lavorato and Marsha Ternus referred to EDMS as the judicial branch's "most ambitious undertaking ever." State Court Administrator David Boyd later characterized EDMS as "the most ambitious challenge the judicial branch has ever undertaken."  

These technological advances laid a broad and solid foundation informing the judicial branch of the power of automation. EDMS would prove to be substantially more disrupting.  For the most part, these judicial branch technological advances left the work, and old habits, of judges, clerks, attorneys, and other court users in place.  Though it was the next logical step, building Iowa's electronic filing system was tantamount to starting from scratch.      As the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) noted, with a case management system "judges could continue old ways of doing business . . . (but) the same will not be true with EDMS."  Similar to the ICIS project, EDMS suffered its share of fits and starts, roadblocks and delays, and the occasional stumble and step backwards.  But given the magnitude of the undertaking, encountering a few obstacles along the way was to be expected. 

The judicial branch began formally pursuing the EDMS project in 2000, issuing a request for proposal (RFP) following completion of a Digital Data Resources, Inc. (DDR), feasibility study in 1999.  Although well into the procurement process for the project, a combination of factors brewed a cessation of the initial EDMS efforts and the grand plan was shelved for a time, but definitely not forgotten.  The delay was frustrating for many in the branch, but determination to realize the vision did not wane.  Along the way, much insight was gained as well as a fuller appreciation for the magnitude of the undertaking and the approach to the project matured. 

In highlight of the need for continued pursuit of EDMS, Polk County, in March 2003, began moving thousands of old court files from the basement of the courthouse to an offsite location.  Lack of space in the basement, ongoing rodent problems, and concern over deterioration of records prompted the move.  A process for requesting records was initiated that included a courier service making six daily roundtrips from the courthouse to the storage facility.  Court record storage challenges were not unique to Polk County, of course, but the Polk County example was particularly conspicuous. 

A critical step in restarting the EDMS project came in November 2005, when the NCSC  issued a "Feasibility Review of the Electronic Document Management System for the Iowa Judicial Branch."  The NCSC report included a review of the DDR 1999 study, identifying gaps in the original study and making recommendations that proved to be crucial in Iowa's successful implementation of EDMS.  During the time from the initial RFP to the NCSC feasibility review, the original vendors in line for the EDMS project had largely gone out of business.  Also, fast moving technological advances would lower the costs and risks associated with the project and the product simply would be better.  For example, as the NCSC noted, bulky cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors were being phased out in favor of liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors and tablet computers, greatly increasing convenience and easing readability of electronic documents. 

In 2007, the judicial branch issued a second RFP for the EDMS project.  Not long into this process, however, the RFP was cancelled due to unsuccessful contract negotiations.  An updated RFP ensued in 2008, which ultimately led to the judicial branch entering into 11 contracts with four vendors. A project kickoff meeting was held with the vendors in December 2008, and the actual designing of Iowa's EDMS was finally underway. 

The Iowa Rules of Electronic Procedure 

Much preparation for the EDMS project commenced even before vendor contracts were signed.  For example, the need for new court rules, or additions to existing court rules, was apparent from the earliest stages of planning for EDMS. In late 2005, an ad hoc EDMS rules committee began researching the relatively few examples of electronic process rules existing in the courts in the United States, including the federal system.    

In 2006, the Iowa Legislature passed and the governor approved Iowa Code section 602.1614, "Acceptance, distribution, and retention of electronic records by the judicial branch."  This legislation was greatly beneficial to the judicial branch effort in designing the EDMS system, particularly during the pilot projects to come and during the west to east implementation march across the state.  Section 602.1614(4) provides in part that "Rules prescribed pursuant to this section shall prevail over any other laws or court rules that specify the method, manner, or format for sending, receiving, retaining, or creating paper records relating to the courts."  The section further granted the court authority to limit its rules to specific courts or case types, discretion that would prove crucial in letting the Business Advisory Committee and the court respond to unexpected technological and business issues that arose during the pilot phase and during statewide implementation of EDMS.  

In the fall of 2006, the ad hoc rules committee presented the first full set of "Rules Pertaining to the Use of the Electronic [Document] Management System," and on January 11, 2007, the supreme court publicly released the rules for the first time, seeking public comment on the proposed rules, more than three years prior to beginning actual implementation of EDMS.   Nearly four months later, the court held a public hearing involving presentations from a variety of groups interested in the rules.    

The court and the ad hoc rules committee gained tremendous insight from written public comments and oral testimony during public hearings.  Fundamental changes to the project would result.  For example, the basic concept of unfettered access to court filings for any person wishing to see them—a guiding principle of the EDMS project from the outset—was rejected.  It was a sea-change development that presaged the thorny issue of public access to court documents versus protection of personal and confidential information of litigants and witnesses and identification of children.  It was now clear that gone would be the "practical obscurity" days of one person at a time traveling to the courthouse to check out a file that typically would first be hand-sanitized of privileged information by clerk of court personnel. 

The ad hoc rules committee went back to work, and on June 10, 2008, the court issued a revised set of proposed rules of practice and procedure relating to the electronic document management system.  In retrospect, an impressive aspect of the EDMS project and implementation is how well these interim rules—drafted years  before the first electronic filing of a document—served judges, clerks of court, attorneys, and case parties with relatively few amendments until the last counties came online for electronic filing in June 2015.  The interim rules also served as a guiding force for technological development of the system. 

With full implementation of EDMS in sight and the work of the Business Advisory Committee winding down in spring 2015, a revamped rules workgroup began preparing an updated and final version of EDMS rules.  The court requested public comment on a revised chapter 16 rules on December 1, 2015.  From this point forward another ad hoc court committee began refining the revamped rules.  The court issued a near-final version of the rules—revised and recast as the Iowa Rules of Electronic Procedure—for one last round of public comment.  Finally, on November 21, 2016, Chief Justice Cady signed the order approving the final set of Iowa Rules of Electronic Procedure set forth in chapter 16 of the Iowa Court Rules. 

Training, Training, and More Training     

Adequate training of filers, clerks of court, and judges was identified early in the planning for EDMS as a crucial component of gaining the buy-in necessary for completely changing how court business would be transacted.  The court and Judicial Branch IT made a concerted effort to involve as many "outside" groups, entities, departments, and agencies as possible in designing EDMS and training for its use. 

Judicial Branch IT budget and the number of persons qualified to conduct EDMS training limited the available staff.  This, coupled with the inevitable learn-as-you-go nature of such an undertaking, contributed to the strategic gradual roll out of EDMS by county from west to east across the state. 

As with many aspects of the Iowa justice system, differences in rural and urban practices required a variety of training approaches.  Every county received training, although for some contiguous smaller counties, training sessions were sometimes combined, and in larger counties multiple sessions were often conducted.  Also, larger counties tended to roll out EDMS by case type.  Using Polk County again as the example, there were separate roll outs for small claims, civil, and criminal cases, resulting in 20 rules training sessions for judges, clerks, and attorneys.    The last four counties implemented in June 2015 were Allamakee, Chickasaw, Howard, and Winneshiek—all relatively smaller counties that utilized a single roll out for all case types and requiring only four rules training sessions for judges, clerks, and attorneys. 

The Judicial Branch IT training team developed 11 separate training PowerPoint presentations and 23 different training modules.  Judicial Branch IT estimates the average training time across all counties at 42 hours. 

Routinely delivered EDMS training modules included the following: 


1.  Town hall meeting: Q & A for general audiences to get a preview of EDMS. 

2.  County walk-through: to assess technical needs  

3.    Attorney rules training 

4.  eFiler open house sessions 

5.  Clerks training (8 sessions) 

·         Scanner  

·         Rules  

·         Clerk review 

·         eFiler  

·         Case management  

·         Multiple efiling scenarios  

·         Work group 

6.    Judges rules training 

7.    Judges/court attendant judicial interface training 

8.    Court reporter training 

9.    County attorney training 

10.   Department of Human Services training 

11.   Law enforcement training 

12.   Law enforcement process meetings 

13.   Juvenile Process Meetings  


The larger counties also included training sessions for abstractors, landlords, tribes, hospitals, corrections officers, public defenders, and paralegals.  

EDMS trainers had very difficult jobs.  They spent many days on the road enduring overnight stays and the vagaries of Iowa weather year round.  They were constantly learning the intricacies of how different clerks offices, professions, and court users interacted with the court system and figuring out how to mesh those different practices with EDMS.  They often "served on the front lines," dealing with agitated and frankly sometimes hostile stakeholders objecting to learning new ways.  

It's a Business Project  

At least 145 times the Business Advisory Committee (BAC) met from the time of its establishment in August 2007 until its last meeting on May 7, 2015.  The BAC was instrumental in the development of EDMS as a business project to provide solutions to court business problems rather than to a technology project.  Judicial branch IT realized early the benefit of a different body to handle the day-to-day issues of EDMS implementation.  In many respects, the BAC would prove to be the "conscience" of the EDMS project.  For nearly eight years the BAC answered unexpected questions, addressed difficult challenges, and served as a final authority when issues arose. 

The statewide makeup of the BAC included two clerks of court, two district court administrators, two chief judges, two district judges, an appeals court judge, a county attorney, two private attorneys, the Clerk of the Supreme Court, a senior judge, and other business and technical advisors.  Meetings were generally held by conference call roughly every other Thursday and often lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. 

During its existence, the BAC tackled a master list of 258 issues that trainers in the field, committee members, and users would bring to it during the development and implementation of EDMS.  Many of the thornier issues would be revisited time and again.  The issues included the technical: such as whether filings should auto docket without clerks approving them, where the file stamp should be applied to documents, and when during the filing process are fees charged.  There were issues blending into legal questions: Can trial informations list multiple defendants?  Who should be able to see open warrants?  Who are case parties who must be given document access and service?  Many issues were esoteric: How would a judge's designee get access in the electronic world?  How could out-of-state attorneys file in EDMS?  How to treat paper processes that do not fit into the electronic world such as safekeeping original wills?  The more difficult issues included matters such as how to handle exhibits electronically, how best to assign security levels to cases, dockets, and documents, and who should have electronic access. 

Pilot Projects—Landing on Plymouth and Story Counties  

In a June 1, 2007, press release, the Iowa Judicial Branch announced that Story and Plymouth Counties would serve as the initial pilot sites to test EDMS.  Clinton County was the third county to have volunteered to be a test site.  A committee comprising judges, court personnel, and attorneys evaluated the applicants based on county population, support from courthouse staff, potential effect of increased workload and potential staff stress from additional customer service needs, and the ability and willingness of the local bar and court personnel to adapt to changing practices and procedures. Indeed, the efforts and sacrifices of the judges, clerks of court, attorneys, and county attorney offices of Plymouth and Story counties and the contributions their experiences made to the overall implementation of EDMS cannot be overstated. 

Nearly three years of hard work would pass, however, before the first electronic filing in Plymouth County on January 6, 2010.  The first electronic court filing in Story County was on November 8, 2010.  Electronic filing for criminal and traffic cases in Story County began June 1, 2011.  By the end of July 2011, the pilot project in Plymouth County was essentially completed, and the judicial branch announced expansion of EDMS to the contiguous Sioux County Clerk of Court Office.    

During pilot county preparation, the trainers and judicial branch IT soon recognized the efficiencies to be gained by expanding implementation to adjacent counties.  Not only did it make sense from a judicial branch time and expense perspective, but the fact of local attorneys and other users of the system in neighboring counties by necessity gaining exposure to EDMS during the pilot phases provided a head start in launching the system in those neighboring counties.  This strategy would often prove useful during the next four years as EDMS marched across the state. 

Show Me the Numbers 

As of January 1, 2017, EDMS: 

Ø  Stored approximately 110,000,000 documents 

Ø  Used 22.3 terabytes of storage (1 terabyte = 1 trillion bytes) 

Ø  Counted 145,969 external accounts (active filers)  


What Made it Work? 

The continuity of the EDMS project over some 20 years is owed much to the fact that two individuals served as directors of judicial branch IT during the time.  Both always preferred, and still do, to remain behind the scenes, but both also cleaved to similar work philosophies that explain the steadfast efforts of so many diverse players coming together to bring EDMS to fruition.  Larry Murphy strongly believed that the "users," not IT, owned the project, and that good governance was necessary for good technology.  His ultimate aim was to more efficiently effect justice.  When Ken Bosier assumed the top IT position for the branch, his mantra was "a day's work in a day's time," and he knew that "not being in the news" was a major measure of success.  He also saw that those who were devoting years of their professional careers to making a success of the endeavor "were not in it for their own glory"; they were in it with a single-minded determination to make the system work better for those it touched.  But perhaps most important to the success of EDMS is the judicial branch emphasis during the design and implementation phase of the project to involve as many constituent voices and perspectives as possible. 

Finally, in this effort to lasso all that which has been the building of EDMS, it is tempting to recognize every one of the individuals who have been instrumental in successfully bringing EDMS to bear.  But it is an impossible task, of course, because the numbers are vast and because someone would surely be inadvertently left out. And in any event, as Ken Bosier remarked and as this author has observed, no one was in it for personal glory; everyone was working to provide Iowans the best court system possible.  You know who you are.  You deserve a hearty hoo-rah and clap on the back for your solicitude and dedication over the years and going forward.  At the same time, it should also be noted that without the time and attention and open-mindedness of so many users of the court system to learn, volunteer their time, and adapt or fundamentally change their own practices—from solo practitioners to staffs of the largest firms; from clerks of court to judges, magistrates, attorneys, and judicial branch IT and contracted staff persons; from agencies and department offices to self-represented litigants—this most ambitious, first-in-the-nation undertaking that has become Iowa's EDMS would never have succeeded. 

By Timothy S. Eckley, Assistant Counsel to the Chief Justice 


          Go Back     Return to Top
2014  |   2016  |   2017  |  

Go to Iowa Judicial Branch Website