NCSC Showcases the Courtroom of the Future

At the largest and only court technology conference, attendees caught a glimpse of courtrooms for the next century

by / October 31, 1997
Can state courts learn from "The Great One" when it comes to using technology?

Lawrence P. Webster, of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), thinks so. Speaking at the Fifth National Court Technology Conference (CTC5), Webster said courts need to be like hockey-great Wayne Gretsky who, when asked how he always managed to be where he needed to be, replied, "I just skate to where I think the puck will be."

Roger K. Warren, president of NCSC, opened the conference on Tuesday, September 9 in Detroit, Mich., by saying, "Our goal is to clarify your technology vision, stimulate innovative thinking and improve your technology assessment [and investment] skills."

If all goes as predicted, the courts of 2007 will use computers that share information with all who need it. Information will be entered only once and by the most logical entity. Systems will be easy to use, platform-independent and fully integrated. Court managers will be able to quickly analyze enormous amounts of data to facilitate planning and resource allocation. Court records will be multimedia files containing visual and audio exhibits, and transcripts will be fully searchable.

Virtual courthouses will make trips to the courthouse less necessary, decreasing traffic and parking problems, and increasing the amount of staff time necessary to respond to citizen and attorney questions. Judges will take advantage of decision support tools that individualize and contextualize each case, without spending too much of the court's most limited resource -- time. Instead of "cookie-cutter" justice, the court can then provide, as keyonote speaker Dr. Shoshana Zuboff, author and graduate professor at Harvard Business School, put it, "not justice for all, but justice for each."

CTC5 was billed as the largest and only national conference dedicated to technology in the courts. The first conference, held in Chicago in 1984, attracted slightly over 1000 court professionals, with attendance at CTC5 exceeding 2500.

In keeping with the information age, a Web site portrayed conference events almost as they happened. Throughout the conference, speakers and education-session presenters gave attending judges, court managers and technologists numerous and varied ideas about what technology can mean today, tomorrow and beyond. Vendor booths and Showcase Theatre presentations displayed and demonstrated various products designed to automate court processes and improve communication internally and externally.


Attendees came to CTC5 for many different reasons. Allan Klein, an administrative law judge from Minnesota, wanted to find "ways to make my life easier." He was especially looking at videoconferencing technology to reduce the amount of travel necessary for the court, litigants, lawyers and witnesses from remote areas of the state. Don Shaw, director of Juvenile Court Services in Pima County, Ariz., looked for information about automating court procedures in a client/server environment. He was most impressed with a demonstration of portable courtroom technology.

Nancy Lake, district court clerk from Fairfax County, Va., enjoyed many of the classes comprised of less theory and more real-world examples, but felt some of the classes were too basic. Patricia Dildine, the computer systems manager from the same court and four-time attendee of the conference, said her most valuable experience was "talking to peers, finding out who's doing what, learning what has worked and what hasn't." She also liked to hear that courts are doing the things envisioned at earlier conferences.


Some speakers warned of potential dangers lurking among the benefits that technology can bring to the courthouse. Lawrence Webster cautioned attendees not to "subjugate our core values to technology" and said that "knowing what will not work is as important as knowing what will." Mark Zaffarano, senior management consultant for IBM, explained the pitfalls in implementing a technological change without fully involving all the players, "especially our employees." Jim Hargreaves, also a senior consultant for IBM and a former trial court judge, cautioned that, for information to be helpful, it must be "timely, relevant and accurate." He said that, given the computer's capacity to store vast amounts of information, "judges now can have the problem of knowing too much." He predicted that court managers will have the same problem unless systems are built with the ability to extract important information with exception reports, to generate ad hoc reports and to conduct modeling experiments.

Technology Bandwagon

There are also dangers inherent in not jumping on the technological bandwagon. Webster illustrated the folly of missing a paradigm shift, such as the Swiss did with the quartz watch, which they invented, but let the Japanese market to the world. Cheryl Currid, a keynote speaker and president of Currid & Company, encouraged attendees to "do things differently because you can." She asserts that, "Getting smart about technology is getting smart about life." Stanley C. Sandstrom, who demonstrated computer animation, declared that, considering the momentum of technological advance, the courts have a choice: "You're either part of the steamroller, or you're part of the pavement."

Information in the Electronic Age

Probably the most overarching topic in the presentations, the educational sessions and the vendor booths was information -- along with its use and its exchange in this electronic age. A cornucopia of ideas about who should have access to certain information and in which format was presented and discussed.

The next Court Technology Conference will be held in the fall of 1999 -- with the potential for two more before 2007. That period of time will determine the validity of CTC5's predictions, show us how many courts will become steamrollers, and how many will be turned to pavement.

A freelance writer, Alison Sonntag has held professional positions in Washington courts since 1978. Currently, she is the chief deputy clerk of Kitsap County, Wash.

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Alison Sonntag Special to Government Technology