High tech comes to the judiciary ? slowly

On the 23rd floor of the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, Fla., sits one of the most technologically advanced and integrated state courtrooms in the country.

Courtroom 23 features live videoconferencing for remote testimony and an evidence presentation system that enables attorneys to show jurors and observers documents, photographs and other materials on plasma monitors located throughout the room. It also has digital and real-time court reporting, live Internet broadcasts, advanced audio systems, a wireless network and fiber-optic cabling. And the room is still being upgraded.

But the courtroom, part of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, is among about 500 state courtrooms nationwide that are considered high-tech in one form or another.

Experts suggest that technology has been slow to enter the halls of justice in part because of a paper-ingrained culture, severe budget constraints and a lack of expertise.

The judiciary has largely lagged behind its counterparts in the executive and legislative branches when it comes to embracing technology. But that doesn't mean court officials here and worldwide aren't thinking about improving administrative functions as well as judicial proceedings through technology.

"There is a greater penetration of technology in courtrooms than the general public is aware of," said Fred Lederer, a law professor at the College of William and Mary School of Law. But he also pointed to a "real-life training shortage, tech competency shortage and a question of self-confidence" hindering usage.

A case for the future

All those issues are being addressed. In late October, about 2,300 judges, lawyers, clerks, other court personnel and vendors attended the National Center for State Courts' (NCSC) Eighth National Court Technology Conference, a mostly biannual event started about 20 years ago, in Kansas City, Mo. It featured 212 vendors, a huge increase from the mere six at the first conference.

It's the largest court conference in the world, with representatives from nearly 30 countries, said Jim McMillan, a principal court management consultant at NCSC. In fact, several countries, including Singapore, Finland and Australia, are light-years ahead of the United States in court technology, he said.

This year's conference included programs on financing automation and other technology projects, enhancing revenue collection, Webcasting, e-filing, wireless technologies, data standards and security, Extensible Markup Language, using the Internet for public education, information sharing through integrated criminal justice initiatives and other systems, and incorporating technology to courtroom design.

Attendees also were introduced to the Courtroom 21 Project, a high-tech experimental program — between NCSC and William and Mary's law school — to find out how to improve the accuracy and speed of the world's legal systems as well as decrease costs. Florida's Courtroom 23 is based on Courtroom 21, which started about 10 years ago.

Although there are about 15,000 state courts, there are an "amazing number" of administrative bodies with some type of judicial process, such as those that resolve tax, water, immigration and worker's compensation disputes, bringing the total number of courts to more than 20,000, McMillan said.

Federal courts have a yearly workload of about 2.5 million cases, of which 1.5 million are bankruptcy cases, he said. State courts have about 105 million cases a year collectively, generating a stack of paper 120 miles long, he estimated.

Scott Fairholm, NCSC's technology services director, said courts are primarily paper-based institutions and some have implemented electronic systems to support those processes. Eventually, some will move entirely to electronic systems, but the real transformation is a change in the way courts operate and that will be achieved through enterprise architecture, he said.

"Frankly, I can't even envision what that kind of court will look like," he said.

In her keynote speech to conference attendees, South Carolina State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal outlined the technological advances her entire court system has been undertaking since she took the reins three years ago. "Technology in the courtroom should be as much of a fixture as the American flag," she said.

Courts aren't there yet, but there are "pockets of really terrific stuff," McMillan said.

A dream come true

For instance, early next year, the Bexar County Courthouse in San Antonio will break ground for a new high-tech children's courtroom, the most advanced of its kind in this country, said Judge John Specia Jr., who championed the initiative.

Most courthouses are dangerous places for children, who often have no privacy in what can be a congested and chaotic environment, he said. The new courtroom will have conference rooms and other functional areas to make them feel safe. It will also have touch-screen monitors at every table and will facilitate remote video testimony, crucial for testimony from incarcerated mothers and fathers who could be too far away to attend a custody hearing. Such improved access to testimony could help judges make better decisions.

"This is something I've been dreaming about," Specia said. Funded mainly by a private foundation, the $4 million project will take a year to complete and could serve as a training site for the nation, he added.

Leading to a virtual court?

Using technology could make judicial proceedings more accurate, faster and less expensive. Technology can also provide enhanced access to witness evidence through videoconferencing, and new forms of evidence, such as immersive virtual reality, which is still experimental, said Lederer, who heads Courtroom 21. Such use can dramatically decrease travel costs for participants.

Although there's culture resistance, he said, younger lawyers are driving the change. They understand it's easier to visually explain things through remote video testimony and other multimedia presentations, he added.

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