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Courthouse Technology: Paper Files to Virtual Trials

by Kurt Schlauch / May 25, 2017

It’s no secret that technology is transforming our daily lives. Phone booths have nearly vanished from urban landscapes (and with the rise in e-commerce, As a court planning consultant I have to wonder if shopping malls are far behind). With the tiny handheld units responsible for rendering phone booths obsolete, we can now order dinner, pay the mortgage, or hail a taxi.

The courthouse has always served a central civic role in American culture. Whether for jury duty, a marriage license, a traffic ticket, or some other purpose, most citizens will have occasion to visit a courthouse every few years. Depending on how long it’s been between visits, people may discover that — thanks to changes in technology — some aspects of the courthouse experience are now very different. The rapid pace of these changes creates both challenges and opportunities for court managers and especially for those responsible for identifying and implementing new courthouse technology.

Below are three areas in which new technology has fundamentally affected courthouses.

The Disappearing File Room

In the past, court clerks were typically required to maintain paper records of each case filing. Large rooms full of shelving would house the records of each proceeding in every case. Even after gaining efficiencies (i.e., rolling shelves allowing storage of more folders within the same space), the storage of paper records took up a considerable quantity of space within any courthouse.

File Room.jpg

Over the past two decades, courts have become increasingly paperless. Cases and complaints are filed electronically, either in person or online. Sophisticated computer networks and custom-designed software now aid clerks and their staff in managing dockets and cases. This, in turn, affects the use of space and the allocation of staff.

As a courthouse planner, I’m always on the lookout for vacant space. Good courthouse planning involves identifying potential expansion space to accommodate court growth. As file storage rooms shrink (or even vanish), the resulting vacant space provides expansion opportunities without acquiring new space. Likewise, clerks no longer need to maintain a large administrative staff to manage files. Some of these payroll savings can be applied toward hiring IT professionals to maintain the computer networks and systems that allow modern courts to do more with less.

Reporter or Recorder?

Consider also the plight of court reporters, long responsible for producing accurate transcripts of trials and proceedings in American courtrooms. A January 2016 newspaper article (“Objections Raised as Courtrooms Go Digital” – Boston Globe) questioned whether court reporters could become “the latest American workers replaced by the inexorable advancement of technology.”

Court reporters manually document every word spoken in a court proceeding. As an alternative, some courts have started using digital recording equipment to produce a recorded version of the proceeding that can be converted to a written transcript. As of 2016, six states were using digital systems to record all or most of their trials. Federal district courts have local discretion to use either court reporters or digital recorders.

As the Globe article points out, some judges and lawyers don’t favor the trend toward recording, fearing that these transcripts may contain errors and gaps due to inaudible phrases, people speaking simultaneously, or background noise. However, other legal specialists view the shift as inevitable, noting that technology is improving while court budgets are shrinking.

Court managers facing this decision will need to balance the potential savings with the potential for reduced accuracy in their court’s official transcripts. The final solution may not always be all or nothing. For example, the State of Massachusetts replaced court reporters with recording equipment for most civil trials, but retained 40 court reporters to document criminal trials because of the role accurate transcripts play in criminal appeals.

More Screen Time

Technology has also transformed the way lawyers present — and judges and juries view — evidence in American courtrooms. Thanks to television shows like CSI and Law and Order, the public probably has the overall sense that courthouses are changing with the times.

Consider the example of the Lake County, Indiana, courthouse described in a March 2015 journal article (“Indiana Courthouse Gets a Custom-Tailored Technology Makeover” - AVNetwork). When jurors would arrive for duty a few years ago, they were often taken aback by the outdated facilities, most of which had remained unchanged since the 1970s. As noted by the chief deputy, “You walk into a criminal proceeding where a guy’s on trial for his life and they’ve got a rolling chalkboard.”

Beginning in 2013, Lake County pursued a state grant and was able to outfit all four of its criminal courtrooms with upgraded technology. The upgrades included 80-inch flat-panel TVs, touch panels on the judges’ and court reporters’ desks, and AppleTV units on the defense and prosecution attorneys’ tables, allowing attorneys to project evidence onto the wall-mounted TVs. The new technology was well received and the vendor was hired to perform installations in other nearby courts.

Court managers pursuing the installation of new courtroom technology will need to select the right vendor and equipment to meet the court’s needs while still remaining within budget. As a courthouse planner, I’ve seen excellent courtroom technology installations, where the equipment is unobtrusive and the courtroom retains its sense of dignity and purpose. However, I have also seen poor installations, where exposed wires run not only over the bench and litigant tables (creating visual clutter), but also across the aisle and well (creating a tripping hazard).

What’s Next?

As technology continues to transform our lives, the courthouse — like so many other aspects of our culture — is likely to continue to change in response. Court managers will continually be faced with technologies that offer additional efficiencies and that introduce new ways of doing business.

For example, it’s interesting to consider how videoconferencing may evolve in the future. It’s already used regularly to facilitate meetings for judges and staff. In many jurisdictions, it’s used to conduct routine proceedings, such as a remote arraignment in which the defendant remains at a secure jail rather than being transported to the courthouse. (Remote proceedings are not common for actual trials, in part because it’s important for judges and jurors to make first-hand observations of witnesses and defendants to gauge their reactions to questions and testimony.) But in the future, could technology improve to the point that many more trials and proceedings could be conducted remotely? Particularly if 3D or holograms were incorporated, the potential savings in both space and time could be substantial.

Virtual reality (VR) has been a staple in movies and TV shows but is a still-developing technology in terms of commercial and personal applications. However, it’s not hard to envision a future courtroom scene in which attorneys guide jurors through the sights, sounds, and details of an accident or crime scene with the aid of VR technology. Several technological, legal, and ethical hurdles might need to be cleared, but it presents an intriguing possibility.

In my 20 years of courthouse planning, I’ve seen file rooms vanish, libraries shrink, and courtroom technology grow by leaps and bounds. I can only imagine what innovations another 20 years will bring. With drone delivery poised for takeoff and flying cars waiting in the wings, who knows what’s next for courthouses?

Tags: Courthouse Technology Courthouse Planning

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Kurt Schlauch

Kurt Schlauch

Kurt is a lead consultant and project manager with Fentress. He specializes in applying quantitative models to assess facilities and support organizational resource decisions. His personal interests include playing and coaching sports, skiing, and traveling with his wife and two children.