Legal ease: Digital courtroom changes proceedings

When hearings for a nuclear reactor waste storage facility at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain begin, they will likely take place in one of the most advanced multimedia digital courtrooms available.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission unveiled the Las Vegas digital courtroom in December 2005. The courtroom has integrated case management evidence and display functions, real-time court reporting and video transcript capabilities, and trial management functions. The commission connected it to the Internet a few months ago.

“This is essentially the first courtroom of its type with that integration anywhere in the country,” said Paul Gwaltney, digital data management system program manager at Nortel Government Solutions. Nortel led a team of companies that designed the Las Vegas courtroom and a similar one in Rockville, Md., which came online in early 2005.

Instead of sifting through hundreds of binders of documents, he said, attorneys and judges will have access to literally thousands of documents, saving time and money and likely speeding courtroom proceedings. The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel will use the courtrooms to help simplify adjudicatory proceedings.

The 4-year-old project cost about $6 million.

Gwaltney said the courtrooms have integrated case and document management functions so court officials can manage all evidence and discovery materials in one system. Attorneys can have a case’s entire electronic record in the courtroom, and authorized users can access them in real time via the Internet.

“This system is actually a seamless integration,” he said. “It just happens to be there are two locations for data entry. Essentially, both courtrooms can be used for any proceedings the NRC designates. For instance, judges that participate in multiple proceedings will have all of that information through a single interface. They can participate actually in a hearing that’s going on in Las Vegas if they need to while sitting at their desks in Rockville.”

However, each location has completely independent server farms with clustered server technology, providing an immediate failover technology. The facilities act as backup sites to each other.

Users can log in to a Web portal similar to a Yahoo account to view electronic documents, he said. The system can also accommodate paper, but judges will discourage that, he added.

Witnesses testifying before the panel can summon evidence through their workstations and annotate or draw on screens, which the system can then capture, he said. The system also accommodates videoconferencing enabling people to testify from a distance.

To create the real-time, searchable video transcript, a court reporter provides the closed-captioned text of the testimony, which is synchronized with the video. Gwaltney said a custom view option allows users to search through the text, select a particular line and watch the video from that point forward.

“We think that’s the primary tool,” he said. “It keeps everything in context. All of the evidence that was presented during that particular video session is all linked into the transcript, so you can simply click on a piece of evidence, hear the testimony and see the witness testifying about that particular piece of evidence.”

That functionality is rare among courts, said Gwaltney, adding that the application is probably making its debut in a federal court.

The courtrooms are expected to host what will likely be contentious hearings on the Energy Department’s license application for a commercial repository for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Nortel’s partners included Phoenix-based ExhibitOne, which provided cameras, microphones, video switching equipment and other hardware, and mediaEdge, a division of Maryland-based Exceptional Software Strategies, which provided the application to synchronize the real-time court transcript with the video of the court session. Gwaltney said New Jersey-based Levare’s calendaring and scheduling software was designed specifically for the judicial court system.

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