This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.
Videoconferencing Links Courts Across the U.S.
Someday, a magistrate judge may conduct prisoner civil rights pretrial hearings at multiple prisons in a single day, without leaving his courtroom. A bankruptcy judge may hold a preliminary hearing in one city while attorneys, witnesses, and other participants gather in a city 100 miles away. And, court personnel sitting on the West Coast may attend a budget seminar with panel members sitting in Washington, D.C. These aren't futuristic scenarios. Videoconferencing makes such time- and money-saving ventures possible today in federal courthouses across the country. And to aid in developing future video-conferencing programs, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference has earmarked the necessary funds to equip multiple court sites with satellite downlink equipment for educational and administrative video broadcasts.
Videoconferencing covers a board spectrum of video communications capabilities. A major federal court pilot program, conducted between 1991 and 1994, allowed court participants who were miles apart to see and communicate with each other as though they were in the same location. Even documents and physical evidence could be shared. In the pilot project, the Eastern District of Texas, the Western District of Missouri, and the Middle District of Louisiana began using videoconferencing for prisoner civil rights proceedings; the Eastern District of North Carolina videoconferenced a prisoner mental competency hearing; and the Western District of Texas used the technology for certain routine bankruptcy proceedings. The participating courts considered the program a success for several reasons: it reduced unproductive travel time, allowed more efficient case scheduling, and increased safety.
Videoconferencing of court proceedings now includes prisoner civil rights pretrial hearings, certain criminal pretrial proceedings, attorney-client interviews, and witness testimony in certain civil trials. Several district courts are presently implementing such systems.
District courts with a substantial volume of civil rights prisoner petition filings may use videoconferencing as a case management tool that helps weed out frivolous claims at an early stage. Videoconferenced prisoner hearings also eliminate the cost, scheduling, and security concerns of transporting a prisoner or of court personnel traveling to a prison. For example, the District of Hawaii is using videoconferencing for attorney-client consultations between the court and a prison facility on the mainland. In the Northern District of Mississippi, where prisoner civil rights filings amounted to 47 percent of total civil filings in 1995, and where the state recently informed the court it may no longer transport prisoners to the courthouse due to financial constraints, the district court sees videoconferencing as the way in which to realize substantial benefits.
Another form of videoconferencing, which the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference recently endorsed, is one-way satellite videoconferencing, proposed by the Federal Judicial Center and backed by the Administrative Office. This program will provide more than 100 court sites with satellite broadcast downlink antennas. This satellite technology allows reception of one-way broadcasts by courts nationwide and can be used to simultaneously broadcast training programs and education courses to multiple courts.
Congressional appropriations committees have urged the Judiciary, and particularly the Federal Judicial Center, to make greater use of video technology. The Judicial Conference's Automation and Technology Committee has endorsed the development and use of videoconferencing technology as part of its 3- to 5-year vision for automation of the federal courts. The Federal Judicial Center is committed as well to the use of video communications as an integral part of its educational programs.
Videoconferencing has fostered several cooperative ventures between branches of government. For some attorney-client interviews and certain pretrial matters, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the District of Oregon work with the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service in programs linking courthouses to federal prison facilities. The Southern District of Iowa conducts prisoner civil rights hearings as a participant in a General Services Administration funded program linking the district to the State of Iowa's videoconferencing network.
Many more districts experiencing expanding prisoner caseloads are beginning to explore similar videoconferencing partnerships with state governments as a means to expedite caseloads. For example, in the Central District of Illinois, the State of Illinois Department of Corrections will soon install a videoconferencing network linking 11 correctional facilities, two administrative facilities, and two county courthouses. The department is interested in conducting a 6-month pilot project with the Illinois district courts using the network for prisoner court appearances. In Indiana, which ranks fourth in the nation in per capita federal habeas corpus petitions, the Southern District of Indiana is exploring a connection to a network linking state correctional facilities, operated by the state's Department of Corrections.
The AO is working with the Department of Justice as it develops an implementation plan for videoconferencing on a nationwide scale. AO representatives met with telecommunications and technology development staff of the Executive Office for the U.S. Attorneys to be briefed on their program to evaluate and acquire videoconferencing equipment. Their efforts will be a valuable source of information and will assist the Judiciary in its own videoconferencing program.
Closer to home, court staff attending the recent Automation Managers Conference at the AO, were shown how desktop videoconferencing is possible using personal computers. The demonstration generated a great deal of interest in the technology and its potential application within the Judiciary.