High-tech court pays off in Florida

With the presidential election hinging on the outcome in Florida last year, no one could have prepared the state Supreme Court for the media onslaught.

But the state judiciary (www.flcourts.org), which three years earlier equipped its courthouse with cameras for cable, satellite and Internet broadcasts, was well-positioned to provide high-tech coverage of oral arguments and other proceedings, said court spokesman Craig Waters.

"What happened last fall worked very well for us," said Waters, the public information officer and deputy Webmaster for the state's highest court and also an attorney. He was speaking Aug. 14 at the National Center for State Courts' annual conference in Baltimore.

In 1996, with a one-time $300,000 legislative grant, court officials — in partnership with Florida State University and its WFSU-TV broadcast station — outfitted the courthouse with four robotic cameras controlled from a remote location. They also purchased a Web server and RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer software for Webcasts.

Waters said the move to do that came through Florida's "culture of openness," demonstrated by its strong open-government statutes.

In the fall of 1997, the court aired its first live broadcasts on Tallahassee public access cable, via the Internet (wfsu.org/gavel2gavel) and via satellite. The satellite feed is now beamed to 2 million Florida households.

During the election turmoil, Waters said TV networks were surprised to learn that courthouse cameras could provide live feeds via a satellite downlink. That proved useful during arguments heard Nov. 20, 2000, he said, although the Webcast server crashed because it couldn't handle the overwhelming amount of traffic. Waters alone received 15,000 e-mail messages.

At one point, he said the site registered 3.5 million hits. When he announced another court decision Dec. 7, he said the court used a Web redistribution service provided by Akamai Technologies Inc., which made the Webcast reliable.

All of the court's proceedings are archived on the site within a day of a broadcast. He said WFSU recently added 18G of memory that should last four more years. The court pays WFSU $149,000 annually for closed captioning, renting a fiber-optic line, personnel and production costs, videotape stock, software licensing fees, and Web design and maintenance. The contract covers 150 hours of broadcasts throughout the year for arguments and ceremonial events.

Waters said not only did the Internet and satellite broadcasts increase public accessibility and education about the courts, press coverage increased and became generally more accurate. The press, he added, also uses the site to download court documents and transcripts.

The technology advancements "laid the groundwork for the 36-day media siege," he said. "[It] made our situation tremendously less difficult."

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