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U.S. GOVERNMENT > The Three Branches > The Judicial Branch > The Changing Face of U.S. Courts

Technological Advances in the Courtroom

By The Honorable Edward C. Prado and Leslie Sara Hyman, Esq.

Photo of The Honorable Edward C. Prado

Through the use of technology, Americans have a better understanding of their court system and how decisions are made. By making what is going on in the courts more accessible to the public, technological advances help to build trust in the U.S. judicial system.

U.S. federal courts have long used technology internally to manage their caseloads. In recent years, technological advances have been implemented to provide the litigants and the general public with greater access to more efficient court proceedings. For example, courts may post their most important decisions on the Internet and some courts offer access to all opinions and filed papers. Several courts are testing electronic filing, which saves both time and paper. The public can pay a nominal fee to access case and docket information from appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts over the Internet. Many courts notify litigants of new orders and opinions by e-mail or facsimile.

In technologically advanced courtrooms, audio-visual display and presentation systems, videoconferencing of remote witnesses, and real-time transcription of the record all reduce trial time and associated costs, and improve fact-finding by both judges and juries.

This article examines the use of sophisticated technology in the U.S. federal courtroom of Judge Edward C. Prado in San Antonio, Texas. His courtroom was remodeled specifically to expand the available technology and is considered a model courtroom in this regard.

"Real-Time" Transcription

The expanded use of technology in Judge Prado's courtroom began in 1996, when he hired a court reporter who used real-time equipment. With real time, the court reporter takes down the proceedings using a traditional stenography machine and a computer immediately creates a rough transcript that can be viewed on a computer monitor. In order to permit the court and the attorneys to make use of the real-time transcript, computers are placed at the judge's bench, in the judge's chambers, at the court staff's desks, and at the counsel tables.

Real-time transcription allows the litigants to search the transcript, review transcripts from prior days' testimony, quickly read back questions or testimony to witnesses, annotate their personal copies of the transcript with notes or highlighting, and purchase each day's rough transcript to assist in preparation for the following day's testimony. Real- time transcription also simplifies complying with a deliberating jury's request to review particular testimony, and can permit persons with hearing impairments to participate in courtroom proceedings.

Presenting Evidence Technologically

More recently, using funding from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and with Judge Prado's input, his courtroom was remodeled and wired with current audio-visual technology. This technology, while advanced, is quite easy to use. Much of the equipment is designed to facilitate the presentation of evidence.

The courtroom is equipped with numerous video monitors: The jurors share eight flat-screen LCD monitors located in the jury box. The custom-built podium, judge's bench, courtroom deputy's and law clerk's desks, witness stand and counsel tables are also equipped with flat-screen monitors. Large television-type monitors hang from the ceiling to allow any members of the public and observers outside the bar also to view the evidence. Evidence can also be presented using a high-resolution projector and large motorized screen that is lowered from the ceiling.

The courtroom has a high-resolution camera/presenter. Participants can place any document or object on the presenter and transmit the image to the monitors. The camera has a zoom feature, which can be used to focus in on a particular part of a document or simply to limit the amount of the document or item shown. This ensures that jurors are actually able to read the documents they are shown. In addition to traditional business documents, in the past, attorneys have used this camera to present fingerprints, x-rays, maps, and even bullets. The presenter is also located near enough to the podium microphone to be used by the questioning attorney, but there is enough room for another attorney or paralegal to operate the presenter.

Video and Audio Conferencing

The monitors are also connected to a VCR, which counsel can use to play portions of videos or even to show a clear single frame, and to the courtroom's video conferencing equipment, which can be used to take testimony from out-of-town witnesses. For example, a doctor who had been on duty all night in an out-of-town emergency room was able to testify via video conferencing. On another occasion, a reporter from Tampa, Florida, was saved the trouble of traveling the 1,000 miles to San Antonio. Video conferencing saves both money and time as it permits greater flexibility in scheduling.

There is also an audio conferencing system, which is connected to the courtroom sound system and is capable of adding telephone conferences to the proceedings. Counsel who wish to present audio evidence can do so using a cassette player at the podium that is wired to the courtroom's high quality sound system, which includes 29 ceiling speakers and surround sound.

In addition to facilitating the presentation of evidence, the courtroom's audio and video conferencing equipment is available for use by out-of-town counsel to participate in hearings without having to travel to San Antonio. The equipment is set up for use both in the courtroom and in the judge's chambers. As with using video conferencing for taking testimony from witnesses, using the equipment for hearings can result in significant cost savings and can facilitate scheduling.

Presenting Evidence Quickly

Photo of Leslie Sara Hyman

The courtroom is equipped with several computer inputs connected to the monitors. Counsel can use the input at the podium or counsel table and their own laptops to present scanned documents, Power Point presentations or other visual presentations. Since the litigants can have every piece of documentary evidence imaged, there is no longer any need to carry dozens of boxes of documents to court. Instead, a CD-ROM can accomplish the same result. CD-ROM and bar coding allow lawyers to quickly locate exhibits and present them to the judge or jury.

A lawyer who expects that a live witness will contradict his deposition testimony can come prepared with several video deposition clips loaded on his computer. When the witness does contradict his earlier testimony, the lawyer can play the video clip and permit the jury to immediately see the inconsistent testimony.

The podium and witness monitors are equipped with annotator pens. Counsel and the witness can use the pens to annotate any still image on the monitors - such as a document or still video frame -- by circling, drawing arrows, and underlining in several colors. Litigants can use this feature to have a witness mark locations of key events on aerial photos or maps, for example. Once an annotation is complete, counsel can request that the item as annotated be printed on the courtroom's high-resolution color printer and then mark the annotated item as evidence.

The parties can use the equipment in various combinations. For example, the jurors could be shown a videotaped deposition on the large screen while viewing the documents the witness is discussing on the small monitors.

Controlling Presentation of Evidence

The questioning attorney can control the various presenting devices using a touchpad at the podium or a wireless touchpad that can be used while elsewhere in the courtroom. As with the presenter and the computer input, the wireless touchpad can also be used by someone other than the questioning attorney (such as another attorney or a paralegal) sitting at the counsel table. The touchpads can direct the video feed only to certain monitors.

For example, counsel can use the monitor at the podium to preview evidence with the judge and opposing counsel before presenting it to the witness or jurors. Documents or other items can be shown to only the witness to refresh the witness's recollection or to establish the foundation for the admission of the evidence before showing it to the jury.

The judge and his courtroom deputy also have touchpads and can override the podium touchpad. They also have controls for the sound system volume and controls for the lighting in the courtroom, which can be dimmed to optimize images on the projection screen.

Other Technology

Judge Prado's courtroom has several additional modern features that can be used during a hearing or trial. For example, the courtroom is equipped with voice-activated video cameras and counsel can request that all or part of the proceedings be videotaped. The wiring for the technology is located primarily under the courtroom floor and is easily accessible should different arrangements be necessary.

In addition to the real-time transcript, the computers at the counsel tables have been equipped with the Federal Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Fifth Circuit Jury Patterns Instruction and the Local Court Rules. Although for security reasons those computers do not have Internet access, the counsel tables do have access to dial-out telephone lines. Counsel who choose to bring a laptop computer loaded with the proper software can use the telephone lines to access the Internet, their law firms, and email.

The courtroom is equipped with wireless microphones to permit counsel to be heard while moving around the courtroom. Translators may also use these microphones. In addition to providing a witness or party with a two-channel wireless headset for translation, the judge may allow observers, such as a party's family members, to listen to the translated testimony. The wireless headsets are also useful for those with hearing impairments.

A white noise generator is installed over the jury box for use when the parties are speaking with the judge at his bench. This prevents the jury from hearing what is said without requiring the parties to whisper. The jurors can notify the judge of the need for a break by pushing buttons located in the jury box, which send a message to the judge's computer. And the judge and the court reporter can send a "slow down" message to the monitors at the podium and the witness box without disrupting the proceedings.

Making the Courtroom Staff's Job Easier

While most of the equipment added to the courtroom is used by the litigants, the judge and his staff also have the ability to use the technology to make their jobs easier. For example, audio and visual signals of all events in the courtroom and all evidence presented using the system are fed to monitors in chambers. Judge Prado also has the option of sending the signals to other locations. In one high profile murder-for-hire case, for example, the signal was sent to another courtroom in the courthouse so that an overflow audience could view the proceedings.

The courthouse computer system, which is available to Judge Prado and his courtroom deputy and law clerk on their courtroom computers, contains a calendar of all of the local judges' dockets for the following two months. This feature makes scheduling much easier for the judges.

Benefits of Technology

Use of technology in the courtroom has resulted in numerous benefits to the litigants and to the public. The most important benefit may be to the court system itself as it is widely believed that judges and jurors retain far more information when it is presented visually as well as orally. Use of technology permits greater access to proceedings by non-parties since they are able to use the courtroom's monitors to see anything that the jury is seeing. And presenting information in multiple formats simultaneously saves time over presenting the information over and over again. The ease of switching between various types of input means that trials are not delayed while the parties rearrange easels and monitors or set up VCRs. Similarly, rather than having to look through boxes of evidence to find a hard copy of a document, then show the document to opposing counsel, the witness, the judge, and each juror one by one, a lawyer can use an imaged copy of the document and display the document to the relevant persons in a matter of seconds.

By allowing proceedings to move quickly, the new technology permits courts to try more cases and reduces the delay between the filing of a case and its resolution. These benefits should only improve as U.S. courts continue to add technology, and as judges and litigants become more familiar with the features of the existing technology.

Judge Edward C. Prado has been a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Texas for 19 years and was recently confirmed to an appointment on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Judge Prado is a former U.S. attorney, assistant federal public defender, state district judge, and state assistant district attorney.

Leslie Sara Hyman is an attorney at Cox & Smith Incorporated in San Antonio, Texas. Her practice includes anti-trust, securities, and general commercial litigation.

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