UELMA Update: An Interview with Jacob Jost, Illinois Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions

Five years ago, the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA) was signed into Illinois law. Our state was the 11th one to enact this uniform law; at this point it has been enacted in 21 states (Texas, most recently) plus the District of Columbia.

Starting in 2016, the official online versions of Illinois Supreme and Appellate Court opinions have been affixed with a digital signature. These signatures are administered by the Reporter of Decisions and certify that the opinion is a true copy of the official opinion.

CALL & UELMA in Illinois

Since CALL members were involved in the effort that led to the Illinois UELMA law, we have a special interest in following the progress of its implementation. The CALL Government Relations Committee (GRC) has focused on this for the past two years.

On May 9, I had a phone conversation with Jacob Jost, Reporter of Decisions, Illinois Supreme Court.  Jost’s office is responsible for publishing the official versions of Supreme and Appellate Court opinions. He filled me in on the process of authenticating Illinois Court opinions, technological challenges, and plans for adopting similar authentication practices for the Illinois Supreme Court Rules.

Authenticating Illinois Court Opinions

Digital certificates are affixed to the PDF version of Supreme and Appellate Court opinions only after they are released as Official Reports. This is after the initial slip opinion has been released and the period for rehearing has passed, coinciding with a mandate from the clerk of the court for release for publication. Once an opinion is certified, it is final; there can be no further corrections or changes.

Citation numbers for IL Court Opinions

Staff members in the office of the Reporter of Decision use encrypted digital keys to authenticate opinions. Thease keys certify that the Reporter’s office issued the authentication. If anything about the document changes after the opinion has been authenticated, the signature will be “broken” and show that the document is not original.

Verifying Digital Signatures

From a typical user’s perspective, the purpose and system of authentication is not easily understandable. About a year ago, following a suggestion of a member of the CALL GRC, the Reporter’s office added an explainer to the Opinions page of their website to help users understand authentication.  The explainer reads:

Authentication: Appearing at the top of published Illinois court opinions, beginning in 2016, is a symbol indicating that the PDF document has been ‘digitally signed by the Reporter of Decisions’ and attesting to ‘the accuracy and integrity of this document.’ The Uniform Electronic Material Act (5 ILCS 180/1 et seq.) requires the publisher of an official electronic record to authenticate that record. The Reporter of Decisions thus certifies that the authenticated opinion is a true copy of the official, published opinion.”

Without the explanation, the digital signatures would have no context and lack usability for anyone who is not aware of UELMA or authentication.

Certificates are viewed by opening the PDF of a court opinion in Official Reports status. The court seal appears on the first page of the document, in the upper right corner, along with a note indicating that the opinion is digitally signed by the Reporter of Decisions. The note also contains a date stamp.

Digital Signature from IL Reporter of Decisions

When viewed in Adobe instead of a browser, more information is available. By clicking on the seal in Adobe, a pop-up box will verify who signed the document, that it has not been modified, and that the signer’s identity is valid. For those who truly want to dig into the weeds, the “Signature Properties” shows cryptographic and other security information.

Signature Properties example

Signature Validation Status example: Document certification is valid, signed by Reporter of Decisions - the Document has not been modified since it was certified. - the signer's identity is valid

The system is not without flaws, many of which occur when reading opinions in certain browsers. Opinions opened in Chrome may not immediately display the digital signature. Jost suggests giving it more time; the signature and the opinion text itself do not always load at the same time.

The issue is more complicated for Firefox users, who have found that the signature never shows even after multiple refreshes. Jost recently determined Firefox itself does not display PDF signatures and has no plans to update this feature. As of July 2019, a new disclaimer was added to the Court website stating that “the default Firefox PDF viewer will not display the authentication signature.” Despite the display issue, the authentication data is intact and documents downloaded from Firefox will still open and display properly in Adobe.

Preservation of Official Digital Legal Material

In addition to authentication, UELMA also addresses continued preservation and usability of legal materials in the electronic record, including backup and disaster recovery (5 ILCS 180/7). Jost explained that in addition to regular server backups, court records are backed up to a magnetic tape every day. This tape leaves the office with a staff member at the close of the day. The court’s Judicial Management Information Services (JMIS) maintains offsite storage and multiple cloud back-ups, as well as coordinating disaster planning.

The Future: Court Rules

A project to digitally authenticate Court Rules is currently in the works. The Illinois Supreme Court will be rolling out website updates in the near future. While there’s no specific timeline for these changes, expect that the Court Rules will look different when those updates occur.

Jost explained that the current presentation of Court Rules focuses on changes over time. While those changes are obviously important, the new presentation will focus more on immediate readability, which is what most users need. Individual rules will be published as PDF’s and each will be authenticated with a digital signature from the Reporter’s office, much the same way that court opinions are.

There will still be ways to look at prior versions of Rules; each rule will be linked to M.R. 3140’s on the court website. These “Miscellaneous Records” are released when rule changes occur and appear on the orders tab of the court website dating back to 2006. At this point, they do not currently interact with the Court Rules section of the website in any meaningful way.

The Reporter’s office has a dedicated staff member working to establish these file paths and have an initial iteration ready to go when website upgrades occur. From that point forward, updates to the Court Rules will continue to be added to the website as they are completed.

If members of CALL have questions about digital signatures, experience issues viewing them on court opinions, or have suggestions for improvement, please share these with the CALL Government Relations Committee.

 On behalf of the CALL and our Government Relations Committee, I’d like to thank Jacob Jost for taking the time to talk with me and to explain the ongoing work that he and his staff are doing to implement the Illinois UELMA law.