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July 23, 2014

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Clerk’s creation cuts paperwork at federal courthouse in Las Vegas, is adopted nationwide

The paperwork monster began haunting Cindy Jensen six years ago. The menacing piles of files and bills cluttered the desks of secretaries, judges and attorneys at Las Vegas' U.S. District Court, sending Jensen – the court's clerical queen – on a quest to slay the beast.

The paper forms, used to track bills from defense attorneys representing indigent clients, number about a hundred each month. Processing each payment manually as the documents traveled from judges to attorneys to court staff was once a cumbersome, headache-inducing process that took weeks.

No more, thanks to Jensen and a pair of technicians who created a solution that is now being used at federal courthouses nationwide.

"We decided we needed to do it a little bit better," said Jensen, the court's chief deputy clerk. "We thought, 'Why don't we create a computer program?'"

Six months later, the trio had a prototype for a new electronic system to manage the vouchers. Now fully functional, the system does away with pesky handwritten forms and yellow sticky notes that once littered the desks of courthouse secretaries.

Jensen's counterparts have taken cues from her, and at least 18 courts throughout the western United States now use the homegrown system, dubbed CJA eVoucher – an acronym for the Criminal Justice Act, the government statute that mandates federally funded legal defense for lower-income defendants.

"It's just a really good record-keeping system," said Peter Schweda, a Washington-based attorney who began using eVoucher when that state's federal courthouses adopted the system. Schweda says the new program speeds payments by weeks.

Earlier this year, Judge John Bates, the Washington, D.C.-based director of federal courthouses, announced Jensen's program would become the federal judiciary's standardized billing system for indigent defense lawyers, which means it will be adopted at more than 100 federal courthouses throughout the country.

Judge Catherine Blake, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, says the new system will lead to better oversight and help the committee effectively project future payments.

"We were excited and proud that this was something we started," said technician Vicente Angotti, who teamed with Jensen on the project and now serves as the court's director of special projects. "We worked on it for so many years and got some recognition. It's an unofficial award, when you get national recognition."

This wasn't Jensen's first battle with the paperwork monster. Her supervisor, Lance Wilson, said Jensen had “produced a program for just about every function" at the courthouse – CJA eVoucher has been her most ambitious endeavor yet.

Due, in part, to Jensen’s efforts, the courthouse is mostly paperless today. But the war on clutter isn't over just yet – she's already got her eyes set on a new project to pump up productivity.

"It's exciting," Jensen said. "Coming up with new ideas – that's what gets me all energized."

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