The days of judges driving across county lines to attend hearings in Missouri’s 4th Judicial Circuit could soon be over.
The circuit’s courts — which span five counties in northwest Missouri — have installed five high-definition video conferencing consoles so that judges can preside remotely over motions, arraignments and other legal proceedings. Officials believe that in time, the system will streamline scheduling and save travel expenses.
Nodaway County Circuit Clerk Elaine Wilson, who works at the courthouse in Maryville, Mo., called the technology a “glorified Skype.” She said that the system will come in handy for juvenile justice matters, which often require numerous trips by Associate Circuit Judge Joel Miller to various courthouses throughout the circuit.
The Nodaway County courthouse went online with the new system in December 2011. Although there haven’t been many opportunities to use video conferencing yet, Wilson believed it’s only a matter of time before its usage picks up.
“It’s still new to us that not a lot of other agencies are aware we have this unit and we’re able to do this,” Wilson explained. “I’m sure once this catches on and people find out about it, we’ll be using it quite often.”
Wilson added that while originally intended to make things easier in juvenile cases, she expects video conferencing to expand to other matters, such as criminal proceedings.
Manufactured by Polycom Technology, the system consists of a large-screen high-definition TV and top-mounted video camera. Rick Bradley, chief juvenile officer of the 4th Judicial Circuit, said the five video-conferencing units were provided from the state using grant money, but didn’t know the exact cost of the system.
From a staff perspective, after training on the system, Wilson said the video-conferencing technology was easy to operate. The units hook up to the Internet and connect to other courthouses by entering in individual IP addresses. The proceedings are transmitted securely and the session is controlled on-screen through a remote control.
Although the video conference is fairly smooth, Wilson said programming could be made a little easier. She said the remote control was time-consuming to use when first dialing in IP addresses and saving information to contacts. She hoped at some point, a keyboard would be introduced to make the system more user-friendly.
In addition, the cameras are set up so that one focuses on the judge and one on the defendant. But they’re controlled by the individual court. So if a judge in one location wants to pan back and see someone other than the defendant or their attorney, they need to ask to have the camera moved.
The system also doesn’t record the video exchange between the parties, which can be problematic in some instances.
“That was a concern we had with one of the hearings we were going to do, an adoption,” Wilson recalled, adding that the problem was avoided as the attorney ended up being able to appear live and a court reporter was present.
The next scheduled use of the video-conferencing system for the Nodaway County courthouse is in February.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.