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August 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


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 technology.

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 time consuming."

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