Young businesses have died on the vine while waiting for legal disputes to crawl through the courts. "Information technology companies, especially, could be out of business by the time something reaches a jury," said David Zurvalec, an attorney and vice president of industrial relations at the Michigan Manufacturers Association in Lansing, Mich.

Hoping to solve this problem, Michigan lawmakers have proposed a new legal institution that operates at Internet speed -- a "cyber court" that harnesses technology to propel lawsuits to resolution. Michigans Gov. John Engler unveiled the idea in his State of the State address last January. A bill to establish the court is now moving through the state legislature.

If the bill becomes law, a software firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., and a subcontractor in Dallas will be able to argue a case before a judge in Lansing without climbing on a plane. Disputants, their attorneys and the judge will meet through videoconferences; theyll share evidence over the Internet; and suits that currently take 18 months should become a thing of the past.

"Our intent would be to create a rocket docket that can move these cases, depending on their complexity, within 90 to 180 days," said Rep. Marc Shulman of West Bloomfield, who introduced the cyber court bill in Michigans House of Representatives earlier this year.

According to the legislation, the cyber court will be available for business disputes involving more than $25,000. The presiding judge will render a decision without a jury. Cases will be argued in the cyber court only if both parties agree to use it rather than the traditional circuit court system.

The bill calls for cyber court cases to be heard via video or audio conferencing, the Internet and possibly other means. When feasible, the court will broadcast its proceedings over the Internet.

"The parties would appear from their own remote, camera-equipped computers, or potentially from a public terminal that could be located in a Kinkos or somewhere else," Shulman said. They would use teleconferencing for the initial hearing, any meetings required during the discovery phase, settlement conferences and, if the case went that far, for the trial and to hear the judges decision. Attorneys could distribute pleadings, exhibits and other documents via e-mail, and witnesses could testify over a video link.

Cases would move quickly because judges wouldnt need to set court dates far in advance to accommodate out-of-town participants with busy schedules. Participants wouldnt have to cool their heels while the judge heard other cases scheduled on the same day. Also, Shulman said, since participation would be voluntary, parties would abide by the rules of the cyber court rather than drag out the proceedings to gain some sort of advantage.

Business Magnet

Besides making it easier for companies to settle lawsuits in Michigan, supporters hope the cyber court will send an encouraging message to businesses, especially technology firms, shopping for a home. "We see ourselves as a high-tech state and we want others to see us that way as well. The cyber court shows how seriously Michigan takes its technological infrastructure," said Joan Trusty, regional director of government affairs at EDS in Troy, Mich. Trusty is president of Automation Alley, a consortium of more than 300 high-tech businesses in Michigans Oakland County.

"Weve reached the point where signatures are done online, contracts are done online -- theres an awful lot of commerce done online," said Barry Cargill, vice president for government relations at the Small Business Association of Michigan, based in Lansing. Companies that are comfortable using advanced technologies in business transactions might see the cyber court as a good reason to locate in Michigan, he said.

Caddy or Chevy?

While the cyber court bill makes its way through the legislature, many details remain to be worked out. Members

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer