Groupware Appeals to Judges

Voting on appellate court motions -- once a paper-heavy process -- now runs on a customized groupware application.

by / April 30, 1997
Reams of paper were generated whenever judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit were asked to vote on a case that wasn't going to oral argument. When one party filed a motion asking for a panel of judges to hear a case, the staff drafted a vote sheet based upon that motion, asking judges a series of questions and requesting they grant or deny the motion. As many as 11 judges participated in up to 20 cases at once, and each judge needed to see the votes and comments of each of the other judges.

"The old system was so cumbersome, with all this paper going back and forth between panel members," said Steve Kaplan, systems manager for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "Consider the work created from the manual process of doing the paperwork and having a decision typed, photocopied and sent to the other judges."

As paper piled up, the process slowed down -- evidence that a solution was needed to speed up the decision-making process, cut down the judges' workload and increase efficiency. "We wanted something that would enhance communication," said Kaplan. "We knew we needed some kind of groupware application and came across Trax Softwork's TeamTalk. In its most basic form, it's kind of like conferencing software where you can create topics, add members and post comments to that topic so other members can read them."

"TeamTalk eliminates bottlenecks created from sharing information, improves the communication process, moves everything onto the computer and reduces the need for groups of people to meet face to face at specific times to share information," said Frank Thomas Cox, vice president of marketing for Culver City, Calif.-based Trax Softworks Inc.

The idea behind TeamTalk is to "parallel the way people share information," said Cox. "In a typical office setting, a great deal of information is shared among workers in a casual way -- standing in the hallway, eating lunch, visiting in cubicles. We used this idea of communication in the creation of TeamTalk."

TeamTalk's basic features include simple and dynamic topics, threads, navigational tools such as TopicMap and ThreadMap, automatic notification, search and search viewer, WAN and remote-user support. It also includes support for non-Windows team members, information from news feeds, emoticons, customization capabilities, maintenance administration and it comes with a voting application that can be customized. "It also allows the court to write their own Microsoft Visual Basic program to record/track votes, interact with TeamTalk and store vote tallies in Microsoft Access," said Kaplan.

One feature allows the user to create a topic or subtopic without having to perform any programming. The user clicks on "new," selects the people he or she wants to participate in the discussion and a new forum is created. Topics can be read-only or created so that only selected people can make changes; write-only so that topics can act as a suggestion box; or read-and-write so that others can see comments and respond to them.

"You would do a read-only topic when you're posting something," said Cox, "like a company policy manual where you don't want something like the vacation accrued to be altered. Or you can do read-and-write when you want to do what the judges do -- read other judges' votes and comments and cast your own."

Since each group is unique, TeamTalk has to go above and beyond a simple groupware application that allows information to be shared. In the case of the U.S. Court of Appeals, it had to be tailored into a cohesive package so judges could see the other judges' votes, easily cast their own votes and make comments.

Trax maintains that the software is easily customized to meet such specialized needs.

The end result is an application where "there is no particular feature that is better than the next -- they're all necessary," said Judge Harry T. Edward, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "It's a whole piece of software that is equally good."

Now that the court has adopted TeamTalk there are 60 users -- including 11 judges, their secretaries and staff attorneys -- using the system. According to Kaplan, "Motions still come to the office on paper, but now WordPerfect is used to draft an electronic vote sheet which includes the case number, the issue to be decided, the judges involved and an overview of the matter. Using a locally developed Visual Basic program, this is copied into a TeamTalk topic which has been created specifically for the case. ... When a topic has been added or changed, TeamTalk automatically notifies each judge. ... The judge can review all the information, notes and comments that have been gathered about the case and by clicking on the voter icon, can view the tally of how the other judges voted. Then the judge can select a radio button to cast a vote on the matter and provide additional comments."

This speeds up the process of voting and eliminates the paper trail. It also quickly imforms judges of other comments. "You don't have to wait for the paper to make its way to you," said Edwards. "You see all the comments in one place and understand why other judges did what they did. It also helps to know if your vote is going to make a difference if the court has already voted a certain way."

"It works perfectly for the appellate court," said Kaplan. "They can create topics on anything, but they mostly create them for motions that come in on cases. The judges can restrict who can view the motions. It's like an e-mail system that groups messages by topic instead of by a thousand individual messages."

"It's a good example of how automation can work to make an operation more efficient," added Edwards. "People think automation is a toy or gimmick, but TeamTalk proves it's the opposite. When we dealt with the reams of paper we couldn't keep up. Now it's the easiest thing in the world to find what you have or haven't voted on, update your information and never lose track of anything."

Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher and editor in chief of California Computer News. E-mail:.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Manual voting on appellate court motions bogged down in paper.

SOLUTION: Groupware.

JURISDICTION: U.S. Court of Appeals, Dist. of Columbia.

VENDOR: Trax Softworks Inc.

CONTACT: Steve Kaplan, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 202/273-0315.

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