Good Technology Assists Good Justice

When a state court wants to find out what the courtroom of the future looks like, they head for Williamsburg, Va.

by / May 31, 1995
June 95

Level of Gvt: State

Function: Criminal Justice

Problem/Situation: State courts, which handle the vast majority of trials in the country, need information technology for managing caseloads and running trials.

Solution: The National Center for State Courts operates a laboratory to test and assess new court-related technologies.

Vendors: Mead Data Central; West Publishing Co.; Michie-Butterworth; Doar Communications; Litigation Sciences Inc.; Court Technologies Inc.; Shure Microphone; Stenograph Inc.; AT&T; Polycom Inc.; ConferenceMate; Teleconferencing Solutions International; Executone;

Jurisdiction/Agency: National Center for State Courts

Contact: James E. McMillan, director, Court Technology Laboratory, NCSC, 804/253-2000; Internet:

By Tod Newcombe

News Editor

The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., awarded the nation's first law degree, so it seems fitting that the testing ground for the newest court technology should be located just a short walk from the college.

The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) is a nonprofit association representing the country's state courts, in which 99 percent of all court cases are filed. To help courts carry out their mission of dispensing justice fairly and efficiently, NCSC provides a number of services, including researching technology tools and systems for managing cases and running courtroom trials.

NCSC's Court Technology Laboratory assesses, analyzes and demonstrates office automation, court transcription, video arraignment, integrated case management, document management, and public-access systems such as touch-screen kiosks. The goal, according to James E. McMillan, the lab's director, is to assist state courts with the awesome task of using technology in what has become a demanding environment for information management.

Part of the problem comes from the growing number of criminal and civil cases that are being filed in state trial courts. Between 1985 and 1992 (the most recent year figures were available), juvenile caseloads rose by 35 percent, civil caseloads by 30 percent and criminal caseloads by 25 percent, according to NCSC. To manage the growing number of cases, courts are expanding their use of technology both in the courtroom and in administrative offices.

A second problem courts face is the aging of their existing technology. The largest courts in the country, which handle most of the cases, have had automated case management systems for years, according to McMillan, but now the systems are out of date. "A lot of those systems were built with older database technology. Now the courts want to take advantage of relational database management systems," he said, "primarily to handle the complex data relationships that exist in today's courts."

All of this has led to a surge in demand for information on court technology, turning NCSC's laboratory into a very busy place. In 1994, the lab responded to more than 2,200 requests for information - more than double the number of requests in 1990. The Court Technology Bulletin, a monthly newsletter, has grown from a few hundred readers in 1989 to more than 13,000 today. NCSC also hosted more than 80 visits to the Court Technology Laboratory in 1994.


One place all NCSC visitors go is Courtroom 21. Located in William & Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law and adjacent to NCSC's headquarters, Courtroom 21 is billed as the most technologically advanced courtroom in the world. Developed by the law school, the college, and affiliated with NCSC, Courtroom 21 is a mecca for anyone wishing to see the latest technology used in a courtroom setting.

Except for the row of computer monitors for the jurors and a somewhat high-tech looking podium for lawyers, the technology in Courtroom 21 is unobtrusive. It's also easy to use, according to its director, Professor Frederic I. Lederer. "Everything in this courtroom has been very carefully designed so that you don't have to be an expert to use it."

What Courtroom 21 is not, however, is a model. According to Lederer, the courtroom is an experimental site for testing technology in a trial court environment. Mistakes have been made, he admitted, but that makes it easier for others to learn.

Courtroom 21 uses commercially available, reasonably-priced technology so that state courts can easily adopt what they need. Law school students use Courtroom 21 to practice their legal skills, enabling visitors to see the technology in action. The capabilities of Courtroom 21 include:

- Voice-activated video. Five ceiling-mounted cameras hidden behind smoked-glass domes keep track of trial proceedings. All video shots are projected simultaneously in a five-on-one screen format on the monitors. When someone speaks, the voice-activated camera aims at the speaker and the system projects that image on the largest portion of the monitor.

- Video arraignment and video conferencing. A mock-jail and judge's chambers contain video conferencing facilities for remote arraignment, witness examination, lawyer-to-judge and lawyer-to-lawyer conferences.

- Real-time court reporter transcription. Within seconds of typing court testimony, a reporter's transcription appears on computer monitors for use by lawyers, judges or hearing-impaired jurors.

- High-tech podium. Lawyers can display recorded or real-time televised evidence using either a video display camera or a computer system equipped with a hard-drive, CD-ROM drive and a bar-code reading pen for locating indexed documents and images.

- Individual monitors for jurors. All video evidence as well as any live video is displayed on individual monitors for each juror. Jurors can also view computer animations and graphics - as well as scanned documents - on the monitors.

In addition, Courtroom 21 contains such things as headphones that boost listening capabilities via infrared technology, dial-up and CD-ROM access to legal research, such as Lexis and WestLaw, and capabilities for consecutive translation of up to 140 languages.

Some of the lessons learned in adapting technology to courtrooms include using sound-absorbing material in courtrooms. Hard surfaces can play havoc with voice-activated video systems. Also, courtrooms should not be built on concrete floors because of problems with wiring. Raised floors not only solve cabling issues, they are easier on the feet.


Video appears to be one of the most promising technologies for aiding and improving court proceedings. It could also prove to be quite vexing, according to Lederer and McMillan. Courtroom 21 has experimented with video conferencing using one-quarter of a T1 line for transmission. The costs are reasonable and the video quality is adequate for typical meetings between lawyers, judges and witnesses. Hardware costs - camera, TV monitor and controls - run approximately $40,000 per site, but are dropping, according to Lederer.

How video is used in courts is still being debated. "Lawyers can use video conferencing when they want to negotiate with another lawyer prior to trials," said Lederer. The most likely use of video in court trials will be to remotely examine expert witnesses. "It presents no constitutional problems and is the one area where you can save the largest amount of money and time," he added.

But the use of video in a criminal case is another matter. Lederer pointed out that the defense and prosecution have the right to "confront" witnesses, and state and federal courts have all types of procedural rules that might disbar the use of video in criminal trials.

Then there is the human element. "Is testimony on TV more or less reasonable than live testimony?" asked Lederer. He pointed out that some legal experts believe the only way to get someone to tell the truth is to put them in a courtroom which has a jury in it, and not at a remote location, where they might be tempted to dismiss the importance of the situation - and not tell the truth.

Even video arraignment - considered by some as an excellent way to cut court costs and time - poses some problems. In an arraignment suspects are brought before a judge who requests a plea of guilty or not guilty. As Lederer pointed out, when video is used it remains unclear where the defendant's lawyer should be: at the remote location with his client, leaving the prosecutor alone with the judge, or with the judge and prosecutor, leaving the defendant alone?


In court administration, technology is being brought to bear on a number of issues. First and foremost is case management. In the 1970s, some of the larger courts installed tracking systems, which used hierarchical databases to manage court data. These systems were fine for handling what McMillan calls the one-to-many relationships of a criminal defendant to his case and other relevant records.

But those systems did not address the many-to-many relationships of information pertaining to persons, cases, time and financial matters that typically occur in court cases. Relational databases provide the flexibility to handle the complex case management, but application programmers must still define the multiplicity of relationships in order for the system to perform correctly.

To help, McMillan has developed a methodology for structuring a case management system in today's courts. "What we want case management systems to have," said McMillan, "is a single-pointer system that tracks a person to the case or cases in which he is a defendant, the scheduling of the cases to avoid any conflicts and, of increasing importance, the fines that have been levied and the accounts to which the money goes."


The Court Technology Laboratory is looking at how technology can help courts in a number of other areas. Electronic filing of court papers by lawyers is one. Another is document imaging, which includes workflow, document management and electronic access.

A third area is information focus. "For years, judges have been telling me that automation is great for helping court clerks with the toil of document processing," said McMillan, "but it's not pulling and focusing the information for their use." To solve the problem, the lab is looking at ways to "focus" information with technology.

Electronic filing of documents is one way to do that, because it eliminates paper and the need to manually pull specific information from documents. Another cornerstone to information focus is markup language technology, such as Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), which enables lawyers to "tag" information in their electronic documents. The judges then can easily search for these tags and use the pertinent information in their opinions.

"These focusing tools are going to become a key piece of court technology in the next 10 years because they will help judges do their job much better," explained McMillan. "Courts will no longer be just pushing paper and collecting fines, they will be making sound judicial decisions. Good information," he added, "makes for good justice."


Technical Assistance Available

Access to the Court Technology Laboratory (CTL) and Courtroom 21 is not limited to state courts. However, state courts are given preferential treatment in terms of scheduling and time if conflicts arise. If there are no conflicts the CTL works with state administrative, international, and federal courts, and private corporations as needed. At this time there are fees associated with international visits.

Onsite technical assistance is provided by NCSC's Court Services Division, located in Denver. They provide the kind of direct, specific assistance many courts need. Each year, NCSC sets aside funds for free technical assistance to the state courts. In 1993 alone, NCSC's Denver-based Court Services assisted over 50 courts in 26 states in a number of areas, including technology assessments and planning.

NCSC is not a membership organization. Each state is assessed a voluntary fee - similar to voluntary fees assessed by the National Governor's Association or the Council of State Governments, and are proportional to the size of the state. Those fees are paid by the state, not by any specific court in that state. NCSC does not deny or grant services based on whether a state pays that assessment, however.

As a nonprofit organization, NCSC also has a private support program. Individuals, businesses, and law firms can make tax-deductible contributions to help support the work of the National Center for State Courts. Again, those people are contributors or supporters, but not members.


Courtroom 21's equipment is made available to the Marshall-Wythe School of Law by participating companies for experimentation, demonstration and critique. Here is a partial listing of the companies and their equipment at the time of the visit by Government Technology.

- Lexis/Nexis (Mead Data Central Inc.) and WestLaw (West Publishing Company) Dial-up legal research; West and Michie-Butterworth Co., CD-ROM-based legal data with JuriSoft (Mead Data Central Inc.) software support.

- Doar Presenter and Disk Partner (Doar Communications Inc.) system for recorded or real-time televised evidence display with analog optical disc storage system; Litigation Sciences Inc., bar code lightpen for image retrieval.

- Court Technologies Inc., microchip controlled, multi-camera, multi-frame video recording system; Shure Microphone voice initiated switching system.

- Stenograph Inc., concurrent computer displayed transcription system.

- AT&T; LanguageLine for consecutive translation of up to 140 languages via Polycom Inc., speakerphone.

- ConferenceMate assisted listening, infra-red private headphones for listening enhancement.

- Teleconferencing Solutions International Inc., phone-based teleconferencing system.

- Executone Information Systems Inc., T1-based multipoint remote arraignment and videoconferencing system.