As technology and innovation dramatically alter many facets of American society and business, the U.S. court systems isn’t immune to this pressure of adapting the newest gadget or system, especially if it is going to improve access to justice for citizens.
However, courts typically are quite limited in their resources and work staff to adapt the latest technology and workflow innovation. We interviewed six current and retired federal judges about managing technology in the courtroom and some of the positive trends they’re seeing.
Even with impediments of tight budgets, overflowing litigants, minimal technology, and other obstacles there have been improvements, the judges acknowledged. Here are a few examples:
“The best recent change in court technology (and a tool I use regularly) allows me to issue short orders directly on the electronic docket,” said James Francis, Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “No more handwritten, illegible memo endorsements. I can enter orders remotely, or (dark secret) I can delegate to a law clerk the authority to rule on non-substantive issues like extensions of time,” he said. “This tool also shows me what motions are still open (with a cute little gavel icon), thus allowing me to manage my docket more efficiently. It was homegrown (in the federal courts, not the Southern District New York in particular) and it does not have a formal name — people call it the ‘gavel’.”
Shira Scheindlin a retired U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York and now Of Counsel in the New York office of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and an arbitator/mediator at JAMS, also cites “the ability to sign orders online and docket immediately without any paper.” She also noted hyperlinks in briefs, and access all filed documents from wherever the judge is working. “All documents are easily accessible,” she said.
Paul Grimm, a U.S. District Judge for the District of Maryland, and John Facciola, a retired U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of Columbia and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law, applauded the2015 changes to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), that helped streamline cases. “The educational efforts are beginning to show judges the benefits of active case management,” said Grimm, who also credited the “willingness of the Chief Justice to support this effort; the decision to have pilot projects to help test best methods of pretrial case management; and the benefit of mandatory initial discovery.”
Facciola noted “the enacted amendments to the FRCP began the process of making discovery more efficient and less costly, and that process is going very well. The decisions by the judges are pragmatic and the time spent in amending rules was time well spent.”
Elizabeth Laporte, a Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, cited the value of her district’s e-discovery guidelines and the checklist for Rule 26 conferences, which addresses e-discovery in the parties’ meet-and-confer sessions before their case management conference. “I continue to hear very positive comments from litigants,” she said.
If Money Was Not an Obstacle
The judges sang the same song when asked what they would want from the courts if money wasn’t an issue — more technology.
“Everything available to everyone online: e-filing only; e-signing of orders; e-docketing of court documents,” Scheindlin.
Francis went further. “I would favor enhancing courtroom technology by providing each juror with access to an individual computer screen,” he said. “That way, they could follow a transcript of the testimony visually in real-time just as I do. In addition, counsel could present exhibits and graphics more effectively and less expensively.”
Facciola would seek technological parity with big law firms. “Judges should have on their desks the same technology that one would find on the desk of a senior partner in a well-funded firm,” he said. “Particularly important is a good search engine that would be adaptable to the digesting and searching of large data sets such as several hundred privileged documents that have to be reviewed by the judge in camera. There is no such software available for judges and they are reduced to manual review without de-duplication and all the other technical techniques that could make such a task manageable.”
You can see Part 1 of this blog series here.