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March 2009

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


Judge Rosemary M. Collyer Steering the Judiciary's IT Policy

Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2002. She became chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Information Technology in 2008.

Q: What role does IT play in the Judiciary, and how does the Committee fit in?

A: The Information Technology Committee used to be called the Committee on Automation and Technology, but we’re eons beyond automation, which to me implies simple tasks such as word processing. Information technology is the way we work now. It’s no longer a nice add-on; it is essential and integral to the way the Judiciary does its business.

The role of our Committee is analogous to that of a board of directors, we make general recommendations, ensure accountability, do long range planning, and exercise oversight over the Judiciary’s IT program. We review and approve the IT Budget for the Judiciary and develop policy issues related to IT, recognizing, of course, that individual courts might implement policies in their own ways. Different courts work in different ways, so it is appropriate that they take national policies and programs and implement them according to local practices, as long as their implementation stays within the intent of national policy.

Q: Over the last decade, how has IT changed the way the courts do business?

A: IT has literally become fundamental to the way we do our daily work at all levels of the Judiciary. For instance, the original case managements systems, ICMS and BANCAP, were simply used by a clerk’s office. Our current generation of case management systems—on which the bankruptcy courts led the way, followed closely by the district courts, and now implemented at the appellate level—has profoundly impacted the way chambers, the clerk’s office, and even the Bar operates. Another example is in drafting opinions. In my own chambers, I have a double computer screen so I can draft on one screen and pull up pleadings or cases on the other screen, without printing it all. I can save on paper and work very efficiently this way. We simply couldn’t survive without our IT systems today, yet they seemed like radical concepts only a few years ago. IT also makes a big difference in the courtroom. Lawyers can now present evidence to juries so that it’s put up onto the screen and shown on a video monitor. The juries can see and understand evidence in ways they couldn’t before. It may have seemed a little more cumbersome at first, because lawyers, like judges, aren’t always particularly adept at this. But once you learn how to use it, it’s as smooth as silk and quite lovely. Our IT capabilities affect not just the way judges do their work, or the way the clerks’ offices do their work, or the way that even the courts of appeals now get their pleadings, it’s also critical to the way that litigants present their evidence. IT has become essential to us all. Just try to picture what it would be like without something as simple as e-mail. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Q: What role will IT play in the courtrooms and chambers of the future?

A: That’s an interesting question, especially if you consider that when President Obama was speaking last month to both Houses of Congress, Members were sitting there texting over their Blackberrys. Who would have imagined that a couple of years ago? It’s extremely common for people to use FaceBook and other social media. The world is doing that sort of thing more and more. The issue the courts will need to address is to what extent our interactions with the world at large are going to meet that level of immediacy and openness—whether we should, considering due process and privacy concerns; whether we want to; and whether we have a choice about it. We perform our work in a very unique environment that doesn’t always move at that pace. But the world around us is beginning to expect it. So the real issue will be—as we move to the new communications network with capability not just for transmitting data, but also voice, video and teleconferencing, all over the same wire—how far and how fast do we as an institution want to go? As interesting and rapidly evolving as the past several years have been, I would expect that the next 3-5 years will be even more so.

Q: What impact has technology in the Judiciary had on the bar and public?

A: Different people will give you different answers to that question. There are those who think that the public benefits by having all of this information available. There are others who worry that we may lose some of our ability to be fair and even-handed because of premature release of information. There are things that happen in courts which are really very private. And although the court is open and it’s a public place, the immediate audience is limited. However, if you use technology to make the same information available in real-time to literally everyone, it’s no longer so private. We have to balance those expectations of privacy with the First Amendment.

We also have to understand that we do occasionally deal with some kinds of information that just needs to be kept more private. Courts have to be smarter about it. If somebody shows a video deposition and all of a sudden something terribly objectionable comes out, now what are you going to do with your jury? So the court, the judge, has to be more active in policing that sort of thing, pre-trial, and be prepared with curative instructions.

But IT also allows for long distance proceedings. We can deal with offenders in prison. I’ve done that a number of times. You don’t have to be traveling all over the countryside, just show up on video in my courtroom. I’ve had witnesses from Bulgaria testify during trial. There are all sorts of interesting things that are happening now and it will only get easier and more cost effective as we implement the network of the future.

But in the end, the benefit is that lawyers can try their cases better; they can present evidence better; and juries can understand the evidence better as it is presented in new ways.

Q: In these fiscally constrained times, do you have budget or resource concerns when it comes to IT?

A: Given the current economic climate, you have to be concerned about the budget. I think it is inevitable that we will be faced with some tight fiscal times, and we may have to make some tough choices as we move the IT program forward. What should be funded and at what point in time? We have been lucky in the last number of years. The Budget Committee for the Judiciary has done really fantastic work, and I’m hopeful that our IT budget will stay healthy. But it’s probably going to be a bit thinner than it has been. It will require more careful planning, and increased scrutiny and management to insure that we squeeze the full value out of every IT dollar.

Q: IT is critical to the projects and plans of so many other Judicial Conference Committees. How do you interact and why is building relationships with other committees important?

A: The Committee on Information Technology has had a series of meetings, particularly with the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM), talking about long-range planning. We also interact regularly with other Judicial Conference committees on matters of mutual interest, such as the Committee on Judicial Resources, Committee on Space and Facilities, the Committee on Criminal Law, and the Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction. These relationships are important, because so many issues cross lines and do not fit neatly within jurisdictional boundaries.

Also the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference has formed an ad hoc committee developing some new long-range insights on where the Judiciary needs to go. The chairs of a number of the committees serve with me on that ad hoc committee. It gives us a really wonderful opportunity for interaction and understanding amongst all of us. We get the opportunity to hear about each committee’s point of view, and to appreciate their concerns and their own constituencies. There has been a really robust opportunity for interaction between and among committees, which I think will put us all in very good stead.

Working on shared issues across Committees is essential to avoiding a “stovepipe” development of new projects or ideas that account for one, but not all, interests that are affected. Under AO Director Jim Duff’s leadership, the Committees and AO staffs have not only made commitments to cross-working, but have carried out those commitments in numerous ways.

Q: As the new chair of the IT Committee, are there particular projects or goals you would like to pursue?

A: I would like the IT Committee to be known for effectively steering and overseeing the Judiciary’s IT program. This means we must effectively manage our resources and make good choices that make sense and have long-range beneficial consequences. There are two specific on-going IT initiatives that are of particular interest to me due to their critical importance to the Judiciary: implementation of the new Data Communications Network and the design and development of the Future Case Management/Electronic Case Files System. The CM/ECF initiative is especially intriguing, not just because of the potential benefits it offers, but also because the project crosses a number of committee jurisdictions, primarily CACM and IT Committees. We will be working closely with CACM as it oversees this extremely important undertaking.

In summary, IT is integral to the way we work. This is not unique to the Judiciary, IT is central to the way the entire world works. We at the IT Committee must ensure that we are smart about how we use our valuable fiscal and staff resources to get the biggest bang for every IT buck expended. It’s not simple but it does have its fun moments.