Bringing computers into the courtroom

If you think a federal judge who deals with high-profile cases involving terrorists and government skullduggery wouldn't have much of an interest in computers think again. Royce C. Lamberth U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia talks as enthusiastically about plans to build the courtroom of the future as he does about litigation.

Lamberth is a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on Automation and Technology a group established to develop the judiciary's long-range automation plan.

Lamberth who was appointed in 1987 recalled that it didn't take much to convince him to join the committee three years later. "I thought automation and technology were the wave of future and [that] we needed to progress in this area " he said. "I think we've made so much progress since the group was formed six years ago and have demonstrated to the judiciary how it can help us. Even older judges are turning on computers."

All judges court clerks law clerks and probation officers now have computers on their desks and each judge receives a one-week training course on how to use new software. Lamberth who went through basic and intermediate training now has a certificate proclaiming him an "official computer whiz." He said he often dials in from home to check up on cases and docket entries.

This training will come in handy as more and more technology finds its way into courtrooms. For example the judiciary plans to introduce real-time court reporting so court personnel can read a transcript on monitors as it is recorded. Also planned are document management systems that store and display evidence such as photos used in trial proceedings and videoconferencing systems to allow witnesses to tape their testimonies and prisoners to testify without having to appear in person.

"Jurors seem to be more accepting [of this technology] because they look at television all the time " Lamberth said.

This high-tech courtroom may not be that far off. Within the next two months the court will conduct pilot tests of these technologies in one room at the U.S. Courthouse in Washington D.C. "We'll start with one then go for funds to expand it " Lamberth said.

The district this month will also become the first to test a kiosk that will allow people to file cases on a terminal at the courthouse instead of filling out a lot of paperwork. Other public information such as judges' schedules and case docket information will also be accessible through the kiosk.

One of the longer-range issues the committee is dealing with is electronic filing and how to expand successful pilots to courts across the country. One such system in the Northern District of Ohio allows lawyers to submit pleadings and related docket entries to the court via the Internet.

A native of San Antonio Lamberth attended undergraduate and law school at the University of Texas. While in school he worked summers in Washington D.C. and he ultimately returned there as the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the district following a six-year stint with the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps. Because Lamberth is a district judge for the district most of his cases involve the federal government a subject that has always interested him. For example he presided over one of the Iran Contra cases in 1987. Another high-profile case presided over by Lamberth involves an airplane hijacking - the bloodiest in history - that went to trial this summer.

A little more than a year ago Lamberth was appointed presiding judge of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the court responsible for approving wiretaps for national security purposes requested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


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