of the states bar association and representatives of its Supreme Court have formed a group to work on some of those details before the legislation comes before the full House. Subjects theyre tackling include how judges will be chosen, how the court will be administered and what issues of security and privacy need to be addressed, Shulman said.

The state also needs to decide exactly what technologies to deploy. "The question at this point is how much money do we want to spend?" Shulman said. "Do you want the Cadillac right now, or the Chevy?"

The legislation does not spell out a budget for the new court.

The cyber court will likely open for business in a room designed for that purpose in the states new Hall of Justice, due to open in Lansing in late 2002. Michigan could eventually add other high-tech courtrooms elsewhere in the state. "Were going to begin with one locale right now and see how that works, because this is a model that hasnt been tested anywhere yet," Shulman said.

Talking Heads

Michigan may become one of the first states to settle real legal disputes in cyberspace, but the model has already been tested in a laboratory setting -- Courtroom 21, operated by the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Courtroom 21 is a showcase for courtroom technologies and a center for experimental work in that field. "Our expertise is in the use of remote participants," said Fredric Lederer, chancellor professor of law at the college and director of Courtroom 21. "In the last few months - weve been doing some work in that area, with [Michigans] cyber court in mind."

A mock criminal trial conducted in Courtroom 21 last April employed the same kinds of technologies Michigan hopes to employ. The case involved an international terrorist conspiracy, and one of the attorneys on the prosecution team took part in the trial from the United Kingdom. "He was in a 40-inch plasma screen installed in the courtroom at the counsel table, right next to co-counsel," Lederer said. At one point, the onscreen British barrister questioned the governments chief witness, who appeared live from Canberra, Australia, in a 50-inch plasma display set up behind the witness stand.

One question Courtroom 21 has yet to resolve is how to share physical evidence, since scientists have not yet learned how to beam up three-dimensional objects through the Internet. The court recently dealt with that issue in a fictional dispute in which a U.K.-based mineral water company claimed a U.S. firm had copied its bottle and label.

Disputants on both sides of the Atlantic received samples of both bottles, Lederer said. Although this is a low-tech solution, the mock trial also took advantage of images transmitted from a graphics program at the University of Leeds in the U.K. "At one point we actually sank one bottle into the other electronically, so you could see one bottle inside the other," making similarities and differences immediately clear, he said.

Surprising Pioneers

Though they have a pretty clear picture of how the cyber court would work, proponents say they cant yet predict how much traffic it would draw. "Only time will tell how much this will be used. But if you dont try to set up a structure, youll never know," said Zurvalec.

Another key question is how well the cyber court would go over with lawyers. Attorneys, as a group, have generally been slow to embrace new technologies.

Lederer pointed out that as more students graduate from law programs like William and Marys, the pool of tech-savvy lawyers will gradually increase. Also, attorneys who handle cases in the cyber court will have no choice but to use its equipment.

"Some lawyers are indeed very cautious," Lederer observed. "But many lawyers are surprising pioneers in the area of technology. And others are guided by the duty to the client and the nature of the adversary system. No one likes to lose. If theres a possibility that technology will be a significant factor on the other side, people tend to look at it."

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer