Past Issues of Government Technology

Roger Warren, President, National Center for State Courts

Fast-moving technology collides with one of society's most conservative institutions.

by / July 31, 1996 0
Roger Warren, who recently
became president of the
Williamsburg, Va.-based
National Center for State
Courts, brings 20 years of
experience as a municipal
and superior court judge
to his new position.
Warren explains in this
interview with Brian Miller,
features editor, how his
years on the bench have led
to a greater appreciation for
information technology in
the judicial system and
what the Center can do
for state courts.


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GT: From a judge's perspective, will you tell us how technology could be helpful to the judicial system?

Warren: Lots of ways. The courts, like other areas in both the public and private sector, are being asked to do more with less. And the courts, in particular, find that their caseloads continue to go up, the volume of the work continues to go up, and the public resources available to operate the courts remain steady.

Technology is one of the solutions to that problem because it allows the court to process more work, more efficiently, for the same expenditure of resources. It also allows the courts to manage their work more effectively by providing information about system performance and core performance that managers need in order to effectively manage the courts.

It offers the prospect of improving access to the courts by those who use it, like lawyers, litigants, jurors and witnesses. Most governmental agencies are concerned about the public having access.

But for the courts, it is a particularly important goal because, ultimately, under the Constitution, people look to courts for redress and dispute resolution. In order to make the whole constitutional form of government work, it's important that there be equal justice to all, that everyone have access to the system. For us, in particular, the use of technology to provide access is critical.

GT: How can technology help the courts achieve these goals?.

Warren: I really see technology as a tool, but other resources are needed. Human resources are needed, including training and professional development resources. Financial resources are necessary. And there's leadership.

One of the things that the National Center is particularly dedicated to these days is encouraging and supporting professional development and the development of effective leadership within the judicial branch, and helping the courts become more dynamic organizations.

By dynamic, I mean organizations that embrace change, that do strategic planning, that do vision setting, that try to be flexible and responsive to the customer's needs and the needs of the people that are served, as opposed to becoming bureaucratic, stiff or wooden.

GT: What kind of changes have you seen in the way technology is looked at over the past few years or decade?

Warren: Oh, huge. Maybe the courts reflect our society, generally, in this regard. My guess is that the reaction of the courts to technology is probably even more dramatic than the reaction of the private sector to technology.

I am in my mid-50s, and I think how you look at this very much depends on where you were chronologically at various points of technological change in society. I have an 11 year-old son, and whenever I do something stupid with a computer, he can come and solve it in a second.

With people over 50 -- probably people over 40 -- the technology came along late in our lives. So there's a natural lack of confidence, as well as a resistance to undoing things that we have previously learned.

You have a situation where the leadership of the court, like the leadership in other sectors, tends to be the more experienced people in the industry. The leadership also tends to have the least sophistication about the use of technology while the newer, less experienced people in the industry have the most enthusiasm, vision and energy about the use of technology.

The courts are the most conservative institution of government -- and they're supposed to be. The Constitution wasn't meant to be changed every day because it's the foundation upon which everything is built. It's supposed to stay as solid as a rock. So, you're talking about taking the most rapidly changing area on one hand, and talking about how it plays in one of society's most conservative institutions on the other.

As people here at the Center say, the problem is sort of a mental problem or a people problem more than a technology problem. Finding the technological solutions is turning out to be easier than solving the people problems and the attitude problems that are really necessary in order to speed the integration of information technology in the court system.

GT: In addition to institutional conservatism, would you identify some other hurdles the judicial system must grapple with to improve or increase its use of information technology?

Warren: Funding has traditionally been viewed by the courts as an obstacle. We went to the Board of Supervisors when I was in Sacramento, and said we wanted so much money to buy this or buy that. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when we were most interested in buying all of this stuff, the state of California and the county of Sacramento were least interested in purchasing it because they had their own budget problems.

When your workload is growing and the resources aren't there, you become most aware of the fact that technology is a solution. In that fiscal climate, it's difficult to invest in technology which produces savings downstream.

I think that over time the courts have become much more sophisticated about addressing the funding problem. People here at the Center refer to this as the "Painting the Golden Gate" analogy. The idea is not to go out and buy a system, then realize that the system today will be the wrong system for tomorrow. And you can't put together one system in one year anyway.

So what the National Center has helped courts see is that they need to do this over time, in the same way you paint the Golden Gate bridge from end-to-end, then start over. You invest something in year one and something in year two and so on. Then you've gotten to the end of the span and you start repainting again.

In the first year, you may invest in PCs and word processing, or e-mail -- the kinds of things that allow people to see an immediate application so they sort of start to feel comfortable using computers. In the second year, you start to invest in case management systems that allow the court to manage its workload more effectively. In the third year, you invest in imaging systems that allow you to present images of physical evidence to the jury and allow you to automate your traffic ticket system. In the fourth year, you do kiosks and the Internet and things that increase public access. At some point the PC becomes obsolete, so you go back and update your PC.

That kind of an approach seems like a much more intelligent use of technology. It avoids the problem of technology becoming obsolete and is much more attractive to funders who see a regular plan or process of investment, and the cost per year is spread out.

GT: My next question has to do with what is often called the justice enterprise, which includes courts, police, corrections and other portions of the compartmentalized criminal justice system. How important is hooking these separate units together so that information can be shared?

Warren: It's critical, and the courts are only recently beginning to realize how critical it is. It's only relatively recently we have begun to realize that the courts are really part of somewhat separate justice systems. Now I think there is much recognition that these are in fact systems, that if you push something here, something is going to pop out over here; that if something's broken over here, something isn't going to work over there.

The courts are in a unique leadership position in these systems because of the function of courts and because of our role in the system. The courts are in a position to provide leadership. One of the areas we need to provide leadership in is communication and sharing information among all of these agencies that are part of these various systems. One of the ways to do that is through the use of technology.

We're now at a point where the technology that allows us to communicate between separate independent systems has arrived. Now we're talking about networking and how every court can have its own system and we still can come up with ways to allow that system to communicate with some other system. The technology is there that allows for good system communication.

And we're back to our earlier discussion, that the obstacles now are no longer technological, but are just human. It's identifying the leadership and the systemwide planning that needs to be done in order to accomplish that.

GT: Given that, would you tell us about the National Center and what it can offer courts?

Warren: We have the most technologically advanced courtroom in the world here, the so-called Courtroom 21 project, which we run jointly with the College of William and Mary Law School. Students at the law school and visitors from around the world come here to see that courtroom used.

Then we have our technology lab where state-of-the-art hardware and software with court applications is available. People from around the world can come to the lab either for general education purposes -- where our court technology lab people will demonstrate the uses of technology in the courts -- or they can come for shopping purposes. Say some court official wants to buy something and doesn't know exactly what to buy. We will demo the technology that is available to meet that need, and the vendors will come here and demonstrate their equipment. Our staff will offer advice to the buyer with regard to the vendor's demo and the vendor's equipment. We offer that kind of shopping advice to courts through the technology lab.

We're now getting very much into the Internet and offering to help courts get on the Internet. We are increasingly being asked to help courts design home pages and things like that. We also do a lot of consulting where we go to a court and offer some technical assistance or longer term consultation to the court in connection with some technology matter. It could be general education.; it could be just advising them on a technology decision; it could be helping them write an RFP when they don't have any experience doing that.

In addition, we have a bunch of publications. We have a court technology report, a special project report and a regular Court Technology Bulletin that gets published every other month.

GT: What are some future plans at the Center regarding technology and the courts?

Warren: It's a little early for me to answer that. I just haven't been here long enough. By the end of this year, hopefully I'll be able to answer that question more specifically about what direction the Center is going to take, including in technology.

Regardless how that comes out, I am sure that trying to remain on the cutting edge of information technology and offering assistance to the courts will, if it isn't already, become one of the real hallmarks of the National Center's work because few courts have the capacity to do this by themselves.

Some of the larger courts do. They have a large enough staff that they have a planning or a technology staff with the time and experience to keep up. But most of the courts are just not staffed to that level and don't have, internally, the kind of resources that we're talking about. So they are dependent on outside resources.

If it weren't for the National Center, I'm not sure where they would go. They could end up just going to vendors, but they wouldn't be able to get any independent advice and they wouldn't be able to get any advice from someone who knows the courts intimately and knows all of the court applications that are out there. The need for independent advice from someone who knows the courts and knows the application of technology in the courts is going to become even more important tomorrow than it is today.

The National Center for State Courts has a Web page at:


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