Out on a Limb

Out on a Limb

by / January 5, 2005
My dad always warned me of the dangers in trying to predict the future, and I almost always took his advice.

But just this once, I'm going out on a limb.

I'm predicting courtrooms devoid of modern technology will go the way of the typewriter.

When? That's going too far out on the limb. But the days of judges and lawyers who fear technology, preferring to adjudicate with the traditional tools of the trade -- like cardboard displays and binders of notes -- are numbered. Old-school tools will be replaced with flat-screen monitors, computers and technology that immediately translates court reporters' phonetic notes into real words judges can read in real time.

Not surprisingly, the third branch of government is behind this technological curve, and there are but a few courtrooms equipped as such today. It's understandable that some judges and lawyers, mostly the venerable ones, like the status quo. They fear technology in the courtroom and wouldn't think of muddling the judicial process with computers and monitors.

They're experts in their field and have, by gosh, reached that point without any fancy technology. They've been successful doing it the "old way." So why change?

Because there are better ways, that's why. When a jury sees evidence through its own eyes, rather than hearing it from a bunch of talking heads, that evidence tends to stick with them.

One complaint now is that lawyers overdo it, presenting more information to juries because technology allows them to do so.

It wouldn't be a bad tactic to try sneaking in some evidence via the technology that would otherwise be inadmissible. Right now, not all judges and lawyers are savvy enough to catch it before it's been seen. But that will change. Law schools around the country are beginning to familiarize students with adjudicating cases with the newest technology. In time, smart ones will learn that less is better, just as the smart ones know when to zip it.

Technology is merely a tool to help juries understand the evidence. It can be misused just as easily as old-fashioned techniques can be misused. Eventually learning how to use technology will make for an even playing field. Good lawyers will win and bad ones will lose, no matter the technology -- just as it's always been.

Judges who have embraced technology in the courtroom adamantly explain its potential to shorten trials and enthrall jurors. Judge Mary Lisi of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island calls herself a technological dinosaur. But she presides in a smart courtroom, enthusiastically adopting the new legal tools.

Lisi recalled a day in trial a couple of years ago when the computer system went down. Evidence was held up and passed around for jurors to view, one by one, instead of appearing on monitors around the courtroom.

"It felt like an eternity. It felt like the world was standing still," Lisi said of the wait.

Someday, all judges and lawyers will feel that way.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor