Andrew Cuomo, State Judges, Technology, Trials

The Digital Courtroom: Apparently Not a Pipe Dream

We live in the age of ulcer-inducing, never-ending budget cuts. It’s surprising, though, when the chopping block can help the government achieve some progress, instead of just slicing its legs off.

And what do you know? We happen to have recent news of that sort from the New York Unified Court System.

Last week, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proposed to cut $100 million from the $2.7 billion 2011-2012 state court budget. But his plan doesn’t just take money away from cute little babies and helpless lawyers. If Lippman gets his way, a big chunk of the cuts will come from implementing mandatory e-filing statewide.

Why didn’t this happen years ago? Way to make lemonade, Judge!

How did this come to pass?

Lippman’s plan didn’t appear out of nowhere; parts of the Unified Court System have already switched to e-filing for certain types of cases, specifically in Manhattan and Westchester County. All of New York’s federal courts began requiring e-filing in 2004. Voluntary e-filing has been available since 1999 for state commercial, tort and tax certiorari cases in some New York Supreme courts.

In an interview with the New York Law Journal, Lippman (who is apparently a chamomile tea addict and the proud owner of an instant hot water sink!) wouldn’t give a specific estimate of savings, but he said electronic filings would eventually “lead to savings in terms of many, many hundreds of millions of dollars … in personnel costs and efficiencies.”

He outlined his budgetary plans in a statement (PDF) on March 2:

Modern technology has advanced to the point that legal papers filed in our courts can and should be handled electronically. In the year 2011, this is not a pipe-dream, but rather the very least we should be doing to move the courts boldly and efficiently into the 21st century. The success of our present e-filing programs very much supports the full-scale implementation of a mandatory statewide e-filing system.

According to the statement, Lippman’s proposed cuts do include some of the usual buzz kills: a hiring freeze, potential layoffs and possible program cuts. Bummer. But he accents the story’s positive spin in the form of a shiny new buzzword: the “digital courthouse.”

E-filing is part of a broader effort toward creating a “digital courthouse,” where the bar and public will be able not only to file papers electronically, but to quickly retrieve court documents, receive court orders, pay fines and fees, and make remote court appearances that will be recorded electronically. So much of the basic business transacted in our courts can be accomplished without lawyers or litigants physically appearing in the courthouse. The “digital courthouse” will provide vast savings for the courts, litigants, and local governments.

This isn’t necessarily a new idea, and the entire country’s courts probably should have already transitioned to e-filing and other forms of digital friendliness. According to the National Center for State Courts, at least 25 states have adopted some form of e-filing. The organization published a more extensive E-filing survey in 2009, but the page seems to be broken. The irony is not lost on me.

(UPDATE: The e-filing survey link is working now. It’s a detailed, interactive download.)

It’s nice to see someone in a position of judicial authority make technological progress a priority, especially amidst significant budget cuts. That doesn’t happen often enough in the legal profession or in government as a whole.

And I’ve got to admit, a digital courthouse sounds kind of fun. It’s like something out of Tron. Definitely better than the cement fortress where I will stand in line for three hours to fight an illegal U-turn ticket.

Lippman is currently working with the legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who have to approve the e-filing initiative. The New York Law Journal article said the transition could take between 12 and 18 months.

On a mostly relevant side note, New York isn’t the only jurisdiction making unusual legal tech news-waves these days. Last month a court in Douglas County, Ga., allowed a witness, who couldn’t afford to travel from Texas for the trial, to testify via Skype. This was probably the first-ever American cross-examination by Internet video.

Unsurprisingly, the prosecutor objected to the awesomely titled “Motion for Leave to Present Live Testimony via Internet Video Phone (Skype).” He said it violated the confrontation clause. But Douglas County Superior Court Chief Judge David T. Emerson overruled the objection. Lawyers in the cocaine trafficking trial set up a large flat-screen TV screen to broadcast the defense witness’s “almost life-size” face.

In a nice display of hubris self-confidence, Judge Emerson told a reporter it wasn’t even a controversial decision to make. Whether the technologically historical testimony made a difference is another matter — the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in the slammer.


Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or e-mail him at cdanzig@gmail.com. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.

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