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Virtual courtrooms pare paper


PHILADELPHIA -- In the virtual courtroom, judges, lawyers and witnesses may be in far-flung locations but linked electronically.

The future has arrived in Wilmington, Del., where a bankruptcy judge and 30 lawyers and corporate officials were hooked up recently through special telephone lines and TV projectors to another judge and courtroom about 500 miles away in Toronto for a hearing.

Just as computers are the norm in American homes and businesses, high-tech justice is emerging across the country.

The cyber courtroom of the future will include videoconferences from scattered locations, Internet court filings, computer-simulated exhibits and digital evidence, electronically stored documents, and transcripts on CD-ROM -- and, maybe one day, the paperless trial.

At a courthouse outside Philadelphia, witnesses as far away as Ireland and Germany appear on a television screen via video teleconferencing.

In Orlando, Fla., trials at the county courthouse are broadcast live over the Internet.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened a Web site recently at http://www. to provide public access to its decisions, argument calendars and other information.

Courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware are experimenting with technology to speed trials, save money and handle the rising volume of cases more efficiently. "You can definitely say Pennsylvania is a leader," said James E. McMillan, director of the court-technology laboratory at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

More courts now accept electronic filing of lawsuits and paperless recordkeeping.

"I can't begin to tell you how much paper we've saved, and how many trees did not have to be cut down, because of e-mail," said President Judge Alex Bonavitacola of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. He used to stuff 90 memos into 90 envelopes to be hand-delivered to his judges. Now, with a mouse click, the memos are sent instantaneously.

Most courts have their own Web sites where taxpayers can look up real estate assessments, civil cases, deed information and judges' opinions.

"We are in the midst of a tidal wave of technological change," said professor Frederic I. Lederer, director of Courtroom 21 at the law school at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The demonstration project, named for the 21st century, is billed as the "world's most technologically advanced courtroom."

"We currently estimate there are a minimum of 100 high-tech courtrooms in the country, and it may be as high as 300," Lederer said. Every federal courthouse being built or renovated will have "at least one," he said

Lederer estimated that a technology-enhanced trial, where images are shown on large screens or monitors to a judge or jury, could be as much as one-third shorter than a traditional, paper-intensive proceeding. Seeing images while lawyers talk and witnesses testify increases jurors' comprehension and speeds trials by reducing the time necessary to acquaint juries with the evidence, he said.

In Delaware's e-courtroom, the witness and jury are in the middle of the courtroom, with attorneys and the judge off to the side. Computers are everywhere. A ceiling-mounted camera flashes images on a computer "whiteboard." As a court reporter takes down testimony on a steno machine, the words appear instantly on computer screens in front of the judge and lawyers.

The gadgetry will be adapted in courtrooms in Wilmington's new Justice Center set to open in 2002, said Richard K. Herrmann, who heads the computer law section of the Delaware State Bar Association.

Courts across the region are planning, or already using, a wide variety of other new technologies.

The federal court in Philadelphia, in 1998 the first in the country to begin electronic filing of lawsuits, will go online in October and accept electronic filing of all legal documents over the Internet. Lawyers, judges and the public will be able to visit the court's Web site to see lawsuits, briefs and other documents.

A pilot program for smaller civil cases in Monmouth, N.J., is totally paperless, from electronic filing of lawsuits to the final orders. New Jersey plans to extend electronic filing in small civil cases to all 21 counties by the end of the year.

Philadelphia Municipal Court soon will allow lawyers to file small civil cases on the Internet. Electronic filings will be expanded later to Common Pleas "Commerce Court" for complicated business cases.

Delaware, home to many Fortune 500 corporations, accepts CD-ROM legal briefs, and since 1991 the courts have allowed electronic filing of lawsuits in large insurance and asbestos cases. The Delaware Bankruptcy Court also permits Internet filings, allowing practitioners to see much of the docket without having to go to court.

Delaware's Chancery Court provides electronic copies of documents in corporate and business cases to the public over the Internet at The Delaware Supreme Court recently made available to the public all legal documents filed in the appeal of Wilmington lawyer Thomas Capano's high-profile murder conviction on the VirtualDocket.

In Burlington County, N.J., child-support court papers are scanned into an imaging system that converts the records for easy storage on CD-ROM. Other courts are doing the same thing.

Child-support, custody and divorce cases in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court are tracked electronically in an automated case-management system. Judges can see all the cases within a family, from criminal arrests to child support, custody and divorce issues.

Court reporters in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court soon will store trial transcripts on CD-ROM, doing away with paper. Transcripts now are e-mailed to the district attorney and public defender. Soon lawyers, and one day the public, will be able buy court transcripts on the Philadelphia court's Web site.

Video technology for bail hearings and preliminary arraignments of defendants, and testimony of out-of-town witnesses for trial, is common. The federal court in Philadelphia holds prisoner pretrial hearings and conferences via closed-circuit television from Sixth and Market Streets to New Jersey's Fairton federal prison and the Pennsylvania state prisons at Graterford, Greene and Camp Hill.

Since the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center opened in 1995, defendants have been arraigned by video, with a bail commissioner at the center at 13th and Filbert Streets and the suspect at one of five police stations, saving time and transportation costs.

Pennsylvania's Delaware County Court has been a pioneer in video teleconferencing, using special telephone lines that allow witnesses to testify from any place in the world. The county courthouse in Media, Pa., is linked by fiber-optic cable to the county prison, where 3,000 hearings a year are held with inmates who do not have to leave prison to come to court.

In New Jersey, all state Municipal and Superior Courts are linked to local law enforcement, county prosecutors, county jails and state police. Pennsylvania is setting up a similar Justice Network (J-Net) to link state police, the prisons, probation officials, courts and other justice agencies by computer to communicate and share information about prisoners and arrests.

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