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Advantages of Videoconferencing Grow with Use
A recently released study by the Federal Judicial Center shows there's a lot
to like about videoconferencing. The survey is particularly interesting for what
it says about how comfortable judges can become with this courtroom
The FJC surveyed 14 appellate court judges on their use and opinions of
videoconferencing technology. The judges represented five different circuits and
all had some prior experience with videoconferencing. Their findings were
compiled in "Report of a Survey of Videoconferencing in the Courts of Appeals."
While the small sample size argues against broadly applying these opinions to
all judges and courts, the survey does reveal some interesting views.
Videoconferencing permits participants at different locations to see and hear
each other via audio and visual transmission. Videoconferencing is essentially a
televised telephone call.
The Second, Third, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits use videoconferencing to
conduct oral arguments. It has also been used to discuss cases that are not
scheduled for oral argument in the Fifth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit. Judges
in the Ninth Circuit use videoconferencing for motions and screening panels and
certificate of appealability hearings. Court business, such as committee or
court meetings, has been conducted by videoconferencing in the Second, Third,
Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits. Judges throughout the circuits also use
videoconferencing to interview potential law clerks and participate in training
sessions, among other uses.
According to the report, almost all of the surveyed judges liked the way
videoconferencing saved travel time and money. Several mentioned scheduling
flexibility; videoconferencing can help judges or attorneys work around an
unexpected health problem or emergencies that might interfere with travel.
Videoconferencing also promotes access to the court, according to the survey
responses, by permitting litigants to appear who might not otherwise be able to
afford to attend oral arguments. The survey quoted one Ninth Circuit judge:
"There are many litigants, especially Social Security litigants, who can't
afford to come for oral argument, but would be able to via videoconference."
The report also notes that videoconferencing can promote a more timely
hearing of cases in the Bankruptcy Appellate Panels. According to one Eighth
Circuit BAP judge, "We have so few cases that we tend to save them up until
there are enough to justify traveling to a court. When you have to fly all
judges and staff to [the appeals] location just for one case, it's expensive and
There was less consensus on videoconferencing's disadvantages. Technical
difficulties—dropped or bad connections—were most frequently cited.
But could the technology influ-ence interactions, for better or worse,
between judge and attorneys? It appears that familiarity with videoconferencing
breeds contentment. The decreased ability to make personal connections with the
other participants was a commonly mentioned disadvantage among the judges with
less videoconference experience. However, the more experienced judges did not
mention this as a downside.
The audio delay that accompanies remote transmissions also might be
considered a disruption; the audio track does not always match the visual
picture so it may be difficult to tell when participants are beginning a
question. "Surprisingly," the report notes, "the audio delay was rarely cited as
a problem by any of the judges, regardless of their level of experience with
videoconferencing.'" Indeed, one court's low-tech solution to audio delays was
for a participant to raise his or her hand before speaking.
Neither audio delay or other technical problems stopped judges from asking
questions of attorneys, or impaired their understanding of the legal issues.
This was particularly true for the experienced judges. One judge noted,
according to the report, "it may take more getting used to, but I ask the same
number of questions." And while the judges surveyed said they found it
moderately more difficult to interrupt when someone else was speaking, it was
not impossible. As one judge said, "In most arguments, there just isn't that
much interruption necessary."
The report concludes that the appellate judges interviewed had positive
experiences with videoconferencing. "On the whole, for the judges interviewed,
the benefits of videoconferencing outweighed its disadvantages. . . Most were
pleased with their court's technology and had very few technical problems to
report." And with videoconferencing experience, judges simply become accustomed
to this mode of interaction. Or as one surveyed judge said, "you tend to forget
that you are doing it via videoconference, and just proceed as normal."
The FJC survey can be found at www.fjc.gov/library/fjc_catalog.nsf