0422-Digital-Files-800

By Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea

Minnesotans have long understood that a basic tenet of a fair and equal system of justice requires the courts to be open to all. Access to justice is defined not just by a physical location but also by how services are provided, how resources are accessed, and how information is shared. In today’s digital environment, the courts stand on the threshold of a technological evolution to increase access, transparency, and convenience in our court system. 

In the decade preceding the pandemic, the Minnesota Judicial Branch transformed how people interact with the courts through our eCourt initiative. The innovations we developed during that time proved crucial in allowing the courts to keep their doors to justice open during the public health crisis of the past two years. Court user-driven technologies remain a top priority for the courts and a driving force behind our work to continue modernizing how we operate. 

MCRO

One of the most notable innovations launched by the Minnesota Judicial Branch in the past year was providing online access to district court case documents through Minnesota Court Records Online (MCRO). This long-anticipated online platform provides the ability to search for and retrieve public documents for certain case types in state district courts without needing to visit a courthouse or the State Law Library. 

The Judicial Branch first began working on this project more than six years ago when the Rules of Public Access were updated to increase remote access to public case records and documents. At that time, the courts used the Minnesota Public Access (MPA) Courthouse and MPA Remote systems to provide access to this information. Both tools required individuals to physically visit a courthouse or the State Law Library to access and obtain copies of court documents. 

In the move to increase online access and comply with the updated Rules of Public Access, the Judicial Branch had significant hurdles to overcome. To start, we learned the vendor for MPA Remote was no longer updating or enhancing the tool. Then, after three years of working with our vendor to build a new tool, we determined that the vendor was not able to satisfy our requirements for public access, data security, and user experience. In the face of these setbacks, we decided the best and most cost-effective path forward was to develop the online platform using an internal development team that leveraged the experience and expertise of our judicial officers and court staff, attorneys, and other justice partners to inform and test its design. 

Balancing the time required to fully develop the new online platform against the emerging public need for remote access, the Judicial Branch decided to launch MCRO in three phases. This allowed the courts to begin providing online access to records and documents during phase one while building out the platform’s full functionality in the subsequent phases.

Phases one and two

The first phase of MCRO, launched in March 2021, provided individuals with the ability to access and retrieve certain public court documents when searching by a case number. The pent-up demand for this type of access was quickly demonstrated when more than 3,700 users downloaded more than 10,000 case documents on the first day. 

The second phase of MCRO, which launched in December 2021, addressed the most requested functionality based on user feedback. Enhanced search functionality allowed people to search for cases and documents using a person’s name, a business name, or an attorney name, as well as by case number or citation number. A redesigned Register of Actions provided more details about each case, including case events, document index numbers, hearings, parties, and financial information.

The demand for access remains just as strong today as it did when MCRO first launched. Nearly 5 million documents have been downloaded via the online platform over the past year. 

Coming this year: Phase three

The final phase of MCRO will be implemented this summer, and it will feature additional search functionality for hearings on court calendars and monetary judgments. Shortly thereafter, the Judicial Branch will begin applying an access fee to view, download, or print uncertified digital court documents that are more than one page. Approximately two-thirds of court documents available through MCRO are one page and would not be subject to this fee. 

The access fee will cost the same amount as purchasing an uncertified copy of a document at a courthouse. The uncertified copy fee is currently set at $8 per document by state statute (Minn. Stat. §357.021, subd. 2(2)). The revenue generated from that fee goes to the state General Fund, as would the revenue generated from the MCRO access fee.

The Minnesota Legislature has the authority to clarify or change the fee to purchase copies of court documents. Several proposals are being considered this legislative session to change the fee to purchase uncertified court documents, either remotely or at a courthouse. The Judicial Branch supports the Legislature’s examination of this issue and hopes for a timely resolution so that our continued implementation of MCRO is not delayed. 

It is important to remember that if a party or counsel is required to be served or provided with a document in a case per state statute or Court Rules, they will continue to receive those documents as they do today and will not be charged to purchase that document. 

In addition to MCRO, the Judicial Branch is also working on other technology enhancements to improve attorneys’ and litigants’ interaction with the courts. A new digital exhibit management system will provide an easier and more secure way to share digital exhibits with the courts and make it easier for the courts to manage and display those exhibits in online and in-person hearings. Also, a new online hearing check-in process will allow case participants to complete their required administrative work up to five days before a hearing. These systems are anticipated to be available statewide within the next year.

Rapidly evolving technology challenges the courts to adopt new methods and systems responsibly and securely. Each of these new tools demonstrates our current and forward-looking commitment to leverage technology to increase access to justice, create a more efficient and user-friendly court system, and have a positive and lasting impact on the way we deliver justice in Minnesota. 


LORIE SKJERVEN GILDEA is the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Previously she served as an associate justice on the Court (2006-2010) and as a Hennepin County District Court judge (2005-2006).