Judge Mary Lisi of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island keeps her eyes glued to two flat-screen panels on the bench. One displays evidence. The other displays testimony translated from the court reporter's shorthand into English in real time. With an optical mouse, the judge flags key testimony and makes notes on the screen.

Both counsel tables are equipped with a flat-screen monitor, and the jury box is equipped -- one for every two jurors -- with monitors as well. The courtroom has at its disposal a digital camera that projects the image of documents or objects onto each monitor in the courtroom. Lisi affectionately refers to it as ELMO, the manufacturer's name.

A self-described technological dinosaur, Lisi presides in a fossil of a courthouse, built during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. The courthouse recently underwent rehabilitation and restoration that included state-of-the-art technology, which was carefully integrated to avoid sacrificing the courthouse's historic feel.

It's a nice blend of the old and the new, Lisi said. Gorgeous woodwork and hand-carved marble retrofitted with 21st-century court technology. "I'm thrilled about what we have in here," she said. When she gets home, she can log on to her computer, connect to the court's system and review cases in her pajamas.

It's one of about a thousand "smart" courtrooms around the country, counting federal, state and local jurisdictions. David Goldenberg, vice president of DOAR, a systems integration company specializing in designing and installing court technology, defines a smart courtroom as one with at least video presentation or video conferencing for remote testimony.

The disparity between smart courtrooms and those devoid of any such technology is vast, and the gap between tech-savvy judges and lawyers may be as wide. The discrepancy breeds frustration at times. There's plenty of growing to do.

If government is the tortoise in the technological race, then the judicial branch is a snail, save a few like Judge Lisi's courtroom, according to Paul Roybal, CIO of the Metropolitan Courthouse in New Mexico. "My favorite line is, 'There will be a paperless bathroom before there is a paperless court.'"

The technology is available for judges and lawyers who choose to use it. DOAR -- and four or five other U. S. companies -- farms out equipment to judges and lawyers on a per-trial basis, and trains judges and lawyers to use it. Most judges and lawyers who ask for the technology are younger and grew up playing with it.

Some sage veterans just wish it would go away, Goldenberg said. "The older attorneys who are used to working with long, yellow legal pads and big poster boards; they're the ones having a difficult time coming around.

"Some judges expect to have a laptop on the bench and the ability to mute the audio and video, and give jury instructions to the jurors -- watching flat-screen monitors, using their laptop," Goldenberg said. "And there are some older judges who just don't get it. Typically they won't even [purchase] the technology."

Judges who spend $150,000 or $200,000 on the technology do so because some lawyers want it, and because it speeds up trials, Goldenberg said. The government -- whether it's a local municipality or the federal level -- has made modest investments in court technology to ensure access to smart courts for both large firms and single practitioners. Lawyers add to what the smart courts offer by renting equipment for trials.

"We may have a $300,000 case, the World Trade Center case is one we happen to be working on," Goldenberg said. "We'll charge the attorney $300,000, and he'll charge the client $400,000. The attorneys, at least the smart ones and the ones at the larger firms with the bigger cases, spend a lot of money now to take advantage of this technology."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor