Jack Kennedy reflects on a career breaking the mold and bringing innovation to rural Virginia’s Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court.
“Thomas Jefferson could have walked into any courtroom in Virginia up until the dawn of the 21st century and likely … still practice[d] law without any problem,” said Jack Kennedy, clerk of the Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court.
In fact, he added, the founding father probably still could function in many of the state’s courts, but not Wise County’s. It was the first to electronically file land records and civil and criminal court records. Last year, the county started using blockchain for managing land records. Plus, the county serves as a testbed for drones in an effort to attract unmanned aerial vehicle makers to the county. It worked with NASA on remote sensing for environmental management and beta tested Starlink, the satellite-based broadband service from SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk.
All of that has happened under Kennedy’s 27-year tenure as clerk, but he’s not seeking reelection this year. His last day will be Dec. 31, unless he leaves early in pursuit of his personal moonshot—a career in the space industry in Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
Kennedy credits the county’s technological success and innovation to two main factors. One is networking, but not in the tech sense—in the people sense of working with public and private entities outside county government, including software engineers, the legal community, state legislators, county residents and more. “I just had the good opportunity to lead great people forward,” he said.
The other is “definiteness of purpose,” the first of 17 principles of personal achievement, according to Napoleon Hill, a county native. It means having a purpose at the core of everything you do in life, and for Kennedy, that objective has been modernization.
Drive to digitize
Of Virginia’s 135 counties, Wise sits in middle ground, both in terms of size, with 40,000 residents, and location, in the central Appalachian Mountains. In other words, it’s not the first place that comes to mind as a tech proving ground. And until Kennedy became clerk, it wasn’t.
“When I came into the office in 1996, the office had no fax machine, no postage machine, dumb terminals … everything was still largely in writing, and volumes of scattered paper everywhere,” he said. “Moving from private practice into the circuit court clerk’s office for me was like stepping backwards a decade,” Kennedy said. So, the first thing he did was look at how to improve the technology.
Kennedy, who’d worked as an attorney and served in the Virginia General Assembly, first began by applying technology to judgment lien docket books. When he started, people searching for a judgment lien against someone had to scan printed pages by running their finger down as many pages as it took to find the name they wanted, he said.
Kennedy recruited interns from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to enter 20 years’ worth of judgment liens into an online system. “That was the onset of educating the legal community as to [the] benefit of this technology,” he said. The value was not just to county staff, but because the data was now online, law offices could also use it. “From there, it began to evolve,” Kennedy said.
Next, he scanned into PDFs all the county’s land records back to 1856, when the county was formed. For a few years, between 1996 and 1998, records were stored on CD-ROMs, but “that really wasn’t sufficient,” Kennedy said. So he helped establish a public/private partnership to enable an online subscription-based database of the records. At the same time, he was chairing a state land records modernization task force, which changed state code to empower clerks to put land records in such a system.
Once land records were online, Kennedy realized they needed a map, so he created one using a geographic information system in coordination with NASA DEVELOP, a program that helps communities use Earth observations in environmental decisions and build a GIS workforce. The Wise County DEVELOP Node opened in 2001 and brought in budding geospatial technologists from around the world.
Today, Wise’s official GIS map has more than 100 layers, including data on subsurface mineral leases of natural gas and coal rights. Now, the county is looking to incorporate all the data in a way that automatically creates an abstract for a piece of property in a document that uses the parcel identification number and summarizes land ownership, surveys, assessment data and tax liens.
“We’ll have an ongoing automated, rather current abstract system,” Kennedy said. “No one else in Virginia I know is doing that—maybe across the country. I don't know.”
Additionally, Kennedy digitized court files, which also dated to 1856. His staff converted the files into PDFs and put them online for access by anyone who enters into a subscription agreement. “We use outside source vendors for the access,” Kennedy said. “We’re in an age of where we need that high level of security, and I’m counting on others through contractual obligation to keep that security current.”
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the county’s adoption of technology. Kennedy points to the launch on April 1, 2020, of an online application for renewal of concealed weapons permits, which in Virginia are issued by clerks. “It immediately resulted in a 50% to 100% increase,” he said. “We’re doing now over 1,100 permits on an annual basis. For a county our size, that's pretty significant. Other clerks across Virginia are beginning to adopt it as well.”
One emerging tech application the county considered is use of GIS and real estate data in augmented reality, such as looking at a property with terrain modeling. “We’ve looked at trying to implement it. It’s just too hard to do so and too costly to implement at this point in time, but it’s coming,” Kennedy said.
Although Kennedy didn’t act in a vacuum, he has struggled to get people on board with innovation. He found two successful approaches: persistence and fostering a youthful organization through internship programs. Those strategies let established employees learn new technologies from younger workers, who in turn learn the ropes of the clerk’s office from their managers.
Another piece of advice that may fit is “break the mold.”
“I live in Central Appalachia, with that comes a stereotype, and that stereotype is permeated throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation,” Kennedy said. But “innovation comes from the strangest of places. Sometimes this gave us an opportunity to break that stereotype, to find new allies to work with in software engineering, in drone technology and space technology and the like,” he said, underscoring that innovation can be applied anywhere. “If we can do it, why can’t you?”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.