From the Kansas City Daily Record (Kansas City, MO) March 9, 2005
Judge Ahrens (MO - Eastern District) said it is only a matter of time - and budgets - before electronic filing is required in all state courts.
When it comes to trial technology, price is no object, experts say - the real question is whether a lawyer can afford not to be cutting-edge.
"Clarence Darrow couldn't hold a jury for two hours anymore without some show and tell," said Kansas City attorney Craig O'Dear. "And it's not enough to just tell. You have to show."
In fact, a lawyer who does not employ technology is at a disadvantage from the start, said Mark Brennan, O'Dear's colleague at Bryan Cave.
"It used to be that jurors were very impressed with lawyers that could bring this kind of technology into the courtroom," Brennan said. "The gloss has kind of worn off the stuff. They've gone from being impressed with the technology that one firm brings in to being critical of the firm that doesn't."
Fortunately, most electronic litigation tools are reasonably priced and within the budget of the ordinary practitioner. According to St. Louis solo practitioner and technology consultant Dennis Kennedy, costs are down and reasonably priced third parties are available to offer courtroom presentation packages.
"What small firms need to focus on is where they can get the most bang for their buck with technology," Kennedy said.
But Alan Steinberg, a St. Louis small firm lawyer, said there can be a down side to having a lot of bells and whistles in the courtroom - sometimes an attorney wants to cultivate an underdog image, which is difficult when he or she is using a lot of expensive-looking equipment. In some cases, though, electronic presentation is absolutely necessary, Steinberg said, such as a case he tried a few years ago that involved 14,000 documents.
A truly paperless trial is rare even today, said O'Dear, but it's possible in Johnson County, Kansas, where he recently had a trial. The courtroom has 13 monitors in strategic spots that allow everyone - judge, witness, attorneys and jurors - to see the evidence at the same time. And if the judge doesn't want something displayed, instant redaction is available. Witnesses need only touch a screen to highlight a given element of the display. Actions that used to take several minutes, such as passing around documents or locating salient pages, now take seconds.
In Missouri, Jackson County Presiding Judge J.D. Williamson Jr. said the circuit court installed new technology several years ago, but the most significant development recently is that judges are becoming more accepting of the innovations. One sign of this, he said, is greater pre-trial cooperation by judges with attorneys who are preparing for electronic presentation of evidence.
Williamson said hi-tech evidence is "more effective because you can continue on with your case, and it's more meaningful to the jury if they see it in the context of a presentation. As far as a judge is concerned there are real efficiencies in terms of court time." He said use of electronic evidence can save two to three days of actual trial time.
Video conferencing has been a real boon in the more rural areas, said 27th Circuit Presiding Judge William Roberts, whose jurisdiction includes five courts and three jails in three counties south of Kansas City.
Roberts said that he can arraign someone in the Bates County jail from his Henry County court. In addition, he said, "I can beam downstairs into the courtroom, I can beam down to St. Clair and they can do the same thing with me."
Video would also help in juvenile proceedings, Roberts said, because hearings must be held within three days when a child is removed from a parent's custody - forcing him to travel on the spur to various courtrooms. What he calls wasted "windshield time" is not an effective use of judicial resources.
"They're making us hold hearings quicker for certain things, for good reason," Roberts said. "But there is only one of me and I can only cover so much ground in a day. This allows me to cover a whole lot more ground and it's not going to affect the proceeding in this limited instance."
And in the not-too-distant future, Roberts hopes to be able to let witnesses testify by video, assuming the Legislature allows it. This would help in methamphetamine cases, Roberts said, as it would free chemists from having to travel constantly to court and allow them to spend more time analyzing evidence.
At the appellate level, judges say they are enamored with electronic briefs, which are instantly available to all the panel members and have hyperlinks to the record and cited cases. "That's invaluable," said Eastern District Judge Clifford Ahrens, who chairs the Missouri Court Automation Committee.
While e-briefs are not the norm, he said, courts are encouraging lawyers to take the leap.
"At this point I think the limitation has been that many firms have felt that the cost-benefit balancing wasn't worthwhile," Ahrens said. "They often had to contract out to a third party provider and it was at substantial expense. But now I think most lawyers are finding that their children can educate them on how to burn CD-ROMS and do a lot of the technology with their own office equipment."
Ahrens said it is only a matter of time - and budgets - before electronic filing is required in all state courts.
Ahrens added that advances in the Case.net system have put Missouri at the forefront of court automation nationwide. "As of last fall there were 5.6 million cases available on Case.net and our tech people estimated we're getting 78 million visits per year," he said.
With all the strides made in technology, Ahrens said the biggest hurdle was convincing court staff that they have not become obsolete.
"We still need clerks, we still need court reporters, juvenile officers, judges, probation officers," he said. "The point of it is we are empowering litigants and lawyers to not only move the cases quicker through the system but to have better access, better service from the courts. Then everybody benefits."