Order in the Cyber Court

Michigan is attempting to launch a cutting-edge cyber court to speed business cases through the legal system.

by / October 1, 2001
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 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
Platforms & Programs