Apr 08 2024

Microsoft Windows 11 Speeds Access to Case Files for the Alabama Appellate Courts

The judicial system has embraced previously unused Microsoft tools, including Sentinel, Defender, Purview and Intune.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced employees in the Alabama appellate court system to work from home, they sometimes ran into roadblocks trying to access case files remotely. The courts were still able to complete their mission, but for IT leaders within the system, the challenge of remote access underscored the need to modernize its technology environment.

“We were still able to administer justice in a timely manner,” says Blake Lunsford, director of information technology for the Supreme Court of Alabama. “However, we wanted to improve our security, workflows and access.”

Lunsford and his team decided to begin transitioning the system to Windows 11 machines, and they also moved the case management system to the public cloud. At the same time, they became more intentional about their use of Microsoft’s security and management tools, which are included in the court system’s licensing costs.

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With support for Windows 10 scheduled to end in October 2025, many court systems and state agencies have begun to roll out new Windows 11 devices or upgrade the operating systems on their existing machines. This move unlocks a host of attractive new features, but it also presents an opportunity for organizations to re-evaluate their environments, optimize their use of existing tools and implement sustainable device refresh practices.

“Good strategies include reducing the overall number of machines — transitioning to laptops and docking stations instead of having a PC on every desk — and having a refresh cycle that swaps out 25 to 30 percent of machines each year,” says Shay Cleary, who advises on technology for the National Center for State Courts as managing director for the organization’s court consulting services.

“It’s also important to communicate with users about the refresh cycle and ensure that getting a new machine is an easy process — that it works right away and that people have access to everything they need,” he adds.

READ MORE: State and local governments share stories of Windows 11 upgrades.

Admins Build a Bigger Toolbox with Windows 11

As the Alabama appellate court system revamped its technology environment, IT leaders had to balance two critically important (but sometimes conflicting) priorities: cybersecurity and the user experience.

“We don’t want to stop anyone’s progress, but we want them to be safe and secure when they do their jobs,” says Ramon West, CIO for the state’s supreme court. “Our IT team tries to be incredibly hands-on and quick-to-respond in solving issues before they become a deterrent to work.”

For the court system, this balance has meant fully embracing Microsoft tools that were previously going largely unused, including Sentinel, Defender, Purview and Intune. “Trying to use the tools we’re paying for to help secure and manage our environment was part of our effort when we moved to Windows 11,” Lunsford says.

The system is using Defender to catch suspicious traffic on its network and to classify incidents and automate incident response. The tool also allows the IT team to send out simulated phishing attacks to employees, helping to raise awareness of the attack method and inform training efforts.

Sentinel provides authentication, access control, threat detection and data encryption for the court system’s Azure cloud environment. Intune is helping IT staff streamline the way they provision, configure and manage employee devices.

The court system is also exploring the use of Copilot, an artificial intelligence feature that is new to Windows 11.

“Our users are excited about the prospect of using AI to search through documents,” Lunsford says. “That’s really going to help our clerks, our justices and our attorneys.”

Shay Cleary
Good strategies include reducing the overall number of machines...and having a refresh cycle that swaps out 25 to 30 percent of machines each year.”

Shay Cleary Managing Director, National Center for State Courts

Preparation Ensures a Smooth Transition with Windows 11

Past operating system updates have been a source of stress for some, but the transition to Windows 11 has been more straightforward for many organizations and their users.

“Most people didn’t even notice the transition,” Lunsford says. “They didn’t know something had changed. We gave them new machines, and they just kept moving forward. I’ve heard very few complaints.”

This response from users, West says, correlates with how quickly the IT department can resolve problems. When users receive new devices, IT staffers at the court system walk them through any questions, such as where to find certain menus or settings.

“We’ve seen a very good response to the Windows 11 migration, because we’re able to mitigate any issues that end users face,” he says.

West adds that users have quickly adopted the Snap feature of Windows 11, which allows them to rapidly toggle between different preconfigured layouts for different tasks.

REVIEW: State and local agencies increase email security with anti-phishing applications.

“During meetings, I use the feature to take notes,” he says. “I might split one window up and then keep my email up, just so I don’t miss any notifications. It’s been very helpful.”

Ultimately, the move to Windows 11 — combined with the embrace of existing Microsoft tools — has reduced the management burden on IT staffers at the court system and made employees more productive and efficient.

“We can access our resources more quickly,” West says. “We can see our configuration; we can see our user groups. We can see a number of things without going to various locations to tie all of that information together.”

“We’re constantly learning,” he adds. “What we’re doing right now won’t be what we’re doing six months from now. We’re constantly changing and evolving. That’s one of the fun parts. We want to constantly stay ahead of the curve when it comes to security and technology.”

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