ABA Techshow

Where is courtroom technology heading? It's complicated

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Updated: Before the pandemic, the extent of courtroom technology was most likely some combination of a VHS/DVD/CD player, an ELMO document and overhead projector, and laptops, notebooks or tablets so lawyers could run Powerpoint, TrialPad or some other presentation program. And that was assuming the courtroom or jurisdiction had the resources or desire to invest in technology.

Thanks to COVID-19, courts underwent a major disruption that led to more widespread adoption of technology.

In a Friday afternoon panel at the ABA Techshow 2024, Judge Scott Schlegel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal of Louisiana and Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr., a senior judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, spoke about current and historical trends in courtroom technology, as well as where things could be heading now that the pandemic is firmly in the rearview mirror. Entitled “Embracing the Digital Courtroom: Exploring Current and Future Trends,” the panel was moderated by Judge Barbara Leach, a judge on the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida in Orlando.

Schlegel spoke about his experience building online calendaring tools and utilizing remote hearings and how that helped make his courtroom run more efficiently. For instance, rather than have everyone on the calendar show up when court opens at 9:00 a.m. and then wait for their case to get called, he let parties sign up for times that would work for them and then set up automated text and email reminders so they would remember to come. “It took me an hour to learn how to do this,” said Schlegel, who set up a web portal using Calendly and Acuity Scheduling. “This is not advanced technology.”

Nevertheless, Schlegel pointed out that when he asked his colleagues if they wanted something similar for their courtrooms, he was met with resounding silence. “Even when I told people around the state ‘I will build it personally for you,’ even when I got funding for it, people didn’t take me up on it,” he said. “Technologists are not jurists and jurists are not technologists. It’s easy to stand here and talk about it, but it’s another to implement and scale it.”

Three judges on a panelJudges Scott Schlegel, Barbara Leach and Herbert B. Dixon Jr. shared how technology has changed how judges run courtrooms. (Photo by Victor Li/ABA Journal)

Another obstacle to widespread technological adoption in courtrooms is the lack of uniformity regarding judicial ethics and conduct rules. Unlike lawyers, who have a duty to maintain some level of tech competence under Rule 1.1, Comment 8 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, there is no such rule for judges.

“Is there a particular canon that directs judges to be competent in technology?” Dixon, who chairs the ABA Journal Board of Editors, asked. “No, there is no canon that we’re aware of in any state that does that.” However, he pointed out that West Virginia and Michigan have published opinions that judges must have some level of tech competency.

Follow along with the ABA Journal’s coverage of the ABA Techshow 2024 here.

Throw in lack of uniformity regarding funding of courts throughout the country, and you have many jurisdictions that don’t have the resources to do anything more than maintain whatever technology they already have. “There is a true justice gap when you’re talking about technology even from courtroom to courtroom in a particular court house, and that’s a real challenge for courts and a real challenge for taking us to the courtrooms of the future,” Schlegel said.

And what might that courtroom of the future look like? Maybe it could utilize more video conferencing capabilities complete with breakout rooms for clients to converse with their lawyers privately. Or quicker turnaround on transcripts thanks to AI-enabled transcription services. Or maybe even holograms and even asynchronous proceedings in which not every party is live and participating at the same time.

However, those innovations don’t have to come at the expense of in-person courtroom proceedings, Schlegel maintained. “I’m not a proponent of tearing the courthouse walls down,” said Schlegel, a 2021 Legal Rebel. “I believe in the courtroom, I believe in trial advocacy. But 90% of what we do can be done virtually, and it’s much faster and more efficient and cost-effective for the public.”

Updated Feb. 17 at 8:58 a.m. to correct a quote attribution for one of the speakers.

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