Kansas Online Court System Faces Long Recovery Time After Cyberattack
Courts in Kansas are entering their second month offline after a cyberattack shut down the statewide judicial filing system.
The outage appears to be the result of a ransomware attack, in which malicious software blocks access to a computer system until money is paid to those controlling the software. Kansas’s system has been down since October 12, with the exception of one county that has its own electronic filing system. The state is working to bring its judiciary back online and install additional security measures, but it could take “well into next year.”
The impact is significant: People can’t quickly seek orders for protection from abuse or apply for marriage licenses over the internet. Courts can’t process payments or manage cases online, and litigants can’t file briefs or motions electronically. And the public can’t access court records.
Kansas’s judicial branch is taking steps to restart a trickle of information to the public. Earlier this month, it opened a public access service center in Topeka. The center includes 10 computer terminals that members of the public can use to access court documents. Appointments are required.
Kansas’s experience highlights the importance of public access and judicial transparency. And while Kansas’s outage is temporary and the result of a malicious attack, many state courts across the country lack transparency even when fully functioning.
In collecting documents for the State Court Report database, we’ve become closely acquainted with processes for accessing briefs and other materials from state supreme courts. Just over half of the country’s state supreme courts — 28 — post briefs online for free. The remaining 22 states only provide briefs to people who pay, reach out to request specific documents, or both. Three states — Alabama, Louisiana, and Maryland — require people seeking briefs to send a request by letter. These barriers to access make it difficult for the public to see what claims were raised or arguments made in any given case.
Paid access can be expensive and cumbersome. In Maryland, for example, supreme court briefs cost 50 cents per page, and there is a $10 flat fee for any document over 20 pages. These fees cannot be paid electronically. Rather, people seeking supreme court briefs must mail a check or money order to the judiciary.
Such obstacles undermine democracy. Restricted access to court documents limits peoples’ ability to understand their state laws, including the rights contained in their state constitutions. And if the public can’t see court documents, they lose out on insights into what their judges are doing. It’s harder, for example, to gather information about whether a judge applies laws consistently across cases.
Without information about how public officials — including judges — are doing their jobs, it is very difficult for citizens to hold them accountable.
The good news is that some state judiciaries prioritize access to information. Iowa and California’s court systems, for example, post all appellate briefs and other docket items online for free. They update their websites regularly, and they allow people to subscribe for e-mail alerts to receive information about specific cases or upcoming oral arguments.
Before the cyberattack, Kansas’s courts were near the middle of the pack when it came to access. Trial court decisions were almost never publicly available. The state’s supreme court did not post briefs online. Anyone who wanted to read a supreme court brief had to send a request by email.
Dramatic outages like the one in Kansas get attention. But lack of transparency is an ongoing issue across the country’s state courts, and it needs to be addressed.
Kathrina Szymborski Wolfkot is the managing editor of State Court Report and senior counsel in the Judiciary Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.