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November 2006

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


Robust IT Program Benefits Courts and Public: An Interview with Judge Thomas Vanaskie

Judge Thomas Vanaskie was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in 1994. In 2005, he began his tenure as chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Information Technology.

What is the mission of the Committee on Information Technology?

The mission of the Committee on Information Technology is well expressed in its jurisdictional statement, which is to recommend to the Judicial Conference broad information technology goals, objectives and priorities; to develop and propose information resource management policies that promote the effective and efficient use of automation in the courts; to coordinate the development, and approve the submission to the Judicial Conference, of the Long Range Plan for Information Technology in the Federal Judiciary; to conduct ongoing evaluations of existing systems and make recommendations for changes, as necessary; and to propose adequate funding and resources to support the information technology programs, including relevant education and training, electronic public access and voice telecommunications programs, taking into account the overall fiscal situation of the Judiciary. The Committee also makes recommendations on IT staffing issues to the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Resources.

One of your goals as chair will be to foster collaboration with other conference committees. Why is this important?

It’s necessary because IT resources pervade all aspects of the administration of justice. We need to talk with the other committees to assure that the initiatives we have coincide with their missions and initiatives.

We are trying to stay in touch through standing liaisons with the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM), the Criminal Law Committee, the Bankruptcy Committee, the Magistrate Judges Committee and the Judicial Resources Committee. We’d love to have a member of the Budget Committee attend one of our budget subcommittee meetings so they better understand what IT and the programs under the jurisdiction of the AO’s Office of Information Technology mean to the Judiciary as a whole. We are trying to foster more open discussion.

How do federal judges learn about software applications that can help them in their work? What are your thoughts on the current education and training programs?

We train judges on applications at our San Antonio facility, but that training is not necessarily geared to the daily work of chambers. We’re trying to gear the advanced training more to what judges are doing in their chambers.

Our training subcommittee will be working with the San Antonio staff on revamping the advanced training program. We’re exploring whether it would be more appropriate to send trainers out to courthouses.

We’re working very closely with the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) and the Administrative Office right now on judge-to-judge training. We’ve had judges at the national district judge and the magistrate judge workshops providing technology tips and training. Also, we are working with the FJC on a Judges’ Roundtable conference for February 2007, proposed by Judge Marjorie O. Rendell (3rd Cir.). The idea is to get a group of 25 judges together, including court of appeals, district, bankruptcy and magistrate judges, to talk about how they utilize technology tools in their work and what kind of training can be provided to enhance use of these tools. Chief Judge Lynn Windmill (D. Idaho) is chair of our training subcommittee and he and Judge Francis M. Allegra (Ct. of Fed. Claims) and Judge Rosemary Barkett (11th Cir.) will be actively involved with representatives from the CACM, Criminal Law, Bankruptcy and Magistrate Judges Committees in planning this conference.

The Local Initiative Program, a national clearinghouse showcasing locally developed applications and innovative uses of technology in the courts, has been up and running for several years. How is it working and do you have any improvements in mind?

I think it’s fairly successful. We’re always looking at ways to get judges and others to use its webpage more often. It’s an awareness tool—awareness of what other courts are doing so you’re not working in isolation—and it’s also a propagation tool, to spread ideas that may be of benefit to other courts.

Our grants subcommittee has come up with recommendations to encourage more local initiative grants in areas we think could be useful on a national basis. We’re looking at providing closer oversight so that when a grant is awarded we can make sure the project moves forward, and that funds are extended in a timely manner. We’re looking at how we transition a local initiative into a national application, and whether there should be things like transition grants. For example, there have been several calendaring programs. Is there a single calendaring program that should move forward? Those are the types of things we want to focus on.

What is the current status of courtroom technology—antiquated or cutting edge?

I would say we’re say we’re close to the cutting edge. Courts continue to upgrade their existing courtroom technology.

Who is pushing for courtroom technology? Bar or bench?

Both. Judges want to try all their cases in the high-tech courtrooms. They overwhelmingly support use of technology for presentation of evidence. And lawyers have realized that use of the multimedia tools common to courtroom technology enhance the persuasiveness of their presentations. They also realize that by having courts outfitted for high-tech presentations, they can avoid the substantial expense of bringing in equipment and hiring consultants, things of that nature. Federal courts’ adoption of courtroom technology has leveled the playing field so that the defendant represented by the CJA attorney or public defender has the ability to make the same presentation as the government.

How does the public benefit from a robust court IT program?

We are steadily moving to a paperless environment, one in which information is created and transmitted electronically, with the flexibility to be converted into a hard copy document at any stage in the process. Lawyers now account for a substantial percentage of docketing in district and bankruptcy courts. Service costs have been eliminated for lawyers filing documents electronically. The information is readily accessible to counsel and the public. There is a lot more transparency to the adjudication process. In short, a robust court IT program makes the federal Judiciary more accessible and efficient.

The IT tools we have save money because they let us handle a lot more volume. For example, courts were able to handle the flood of bankruptcy filings that occurred before the effective date of the new bankruptcy legislation last year, primarily because of the electronic case filings system.

There’s also no doubt that a trial moves more quickly when evidence is presented through evidence presentation technology. The jurors benefit by not having to be there for as many days. The public benefits because a judge now is available sooner to take on the next trial. Obviously litigants benefit because there is less time spent in trial.

On my court, we had a complicated perjury case involving a state legislator that was projected to last about three weeks, but only took a week and a half to try. They had 60 witnesses, all of whom viewed their grand jury testimony on the computer using evidence management software. When a witness was cross-examined there was nobody running up with the transcript, no fumbling for it. They used bar code technology that enabled the lawyer, witness, jury and judge to be on the same transcript page instantaneously. That’s how evidence presentation technology accelerates the trial process.

Faced with tighter budgets, the Judiciary has initiated a far-reaching cost-containment effort. What can be done in IT to contain costs without affecting operations and services?

The IT Committee was asked by the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference to look at how we deploy servers for national applications. By national applications I mean our accounting, probation case management, electronic case filing and e-mail and jury management systems. Our model had been to put a server in each court headquarters for all those national applications. From a technical standpoint, such a server deployment model wasn’t necessary and would not be consistent with how private business would deploy servers. We undertook a comprehensive study, and we put together a great working group of unit executives, IT professionals and a judge. Now we’re in the process of implementing some of their recommendations.

For example, in the probation/pretrial services area, we are in the process of consolidating approximately 95 servers into two locations, which is projected to save $2-3 million over four years. In jury management, the working group recommended eliminating separate servers for each court, and that’s projected to save about $4 million over five years.

Another way we have saved money is to get enterprise-wide licenses. A great example of that is the Adobe Acrobat Professional license, which will save the courts significant dollars.

You’ve suggested an “exchange program” between the courts and the AO. How would that work?

The concept is to have an IT Fellows program, similar to the Supreme Court Judicial Fellows program. We would look for applicants to work at the AO on a specific project for a dedicated period of time. It has to be sufficiently long that the people who come here understand the IT issues from a national perspective. They would support the work of our committee as well, so we would benefit from their insight and court perspective.

We’d make it a reciprocal program. Someone from the AO’s IT Office would go to the courts so they gain a greater appreciation of the court’s day-to-day work.

Looking back, what technological change do you think has had the most impact on the federal courts? Looking into the future, what can you see for IT in the federal courts?

It’s hard to isolate a technological change that has had the most impact on the federal courts, but two come to mind. One is the expansion of high-speed Internet connectivity. It not only allows us to have a very efficient, very effective wide-area network in the courts, but has made us a lot more flexible in terms of remote access. We see a number of people who are able to telecommute. We see judges who are more connected now as VPN usage has expanded significantly. We see courts pushing for remote access for probation officers and other court staff. Instantaneous access, I think, makes the federal Judiciary more efficient and responsive.

The other item is our electronic case filing system, which has altered dramatically the work inside the court and the way lawyers interact with the court.

Looking into the future, we’d like to be able to better integrate existing technologies with the electronic case record. There is technology out there, for example, that would allow you to display and scan a document at the same time, electronically making it part of the official court record.

One of today’s current technologies that has had only limited implementation in the courts thus far is voice-over-internet. It has the potential for substantial cost savings, and thus needs to be explored. And if we’re ever going to move forward with something like that, we have to look at how best to manage the networks while protecting the privacy and security of all the users.