Words spoken within courtrooms walls have the power to condemn killers to death, decide whether a child will live with his mother or father, divide fortunes and mandate boundaries.
The outcome of trials, where critical issues of freedom and justice are at stake, can turn on a convincing phrase expressed by an attorney, a witness, an accused person.From the 1700s when colonists held trials in Williamsburg, Va., to modern decisions handed down by the nation's Supreme Court, recorded language creates law and, eventually, history.
Ways of preserving these crucial words have evolved through the centuries, from writing with a quill on parchment to Kentucky's 21st century courtrooms where voice-activated cameras rec-ord court proceedings on videotape. In these electronic courtrooms, paper transcripts have essentially been eliminated, replaced by a tape that judges can review in chambers by popping it into a VCR.
But replacing real live court reporters with video cameras makes a lot of people nervous.Many attorneys and judges like the way things have been done in the past. They're comfortable with the way paper feels in their hands when they read over the words exchanged in court. They can thumb through pages to find a quote rather than awkwardly fast-forwarding or reversing a tape.
The prospect of video cameras in the courtroom makes court reporters, who make a living producing a written transcript of court proceedings, especially nervous.
The technology debate
How Utah's courts will record proceedings and where this information is stored is a question of debate and controversy as leaders peek over the rim into the next century. It pits human capacity and vulnerability against a machine's detached accuracy.
Charged with charting the technological future of Utah's courts, a commission of Utah lawmakers, judges, attorneys and court officials recently traveled to the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., to explore state-of-the-art technology found in progressive courtrooms across the nation. For most, it was a journey into the Land of the Exciting but Unfamiliar.
Salt Lake attorney Randy Dryer chairs the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century technology committee. While the judiciary is immersed in tradition, relying heavily on precedent and suspicious of change, the courts must change or lose the battle of providing speedy justice, he says.
"The courts can either choose to embrace change or chase it, but they can't ignore it."
Saving taxpayer dollars
Videotaped arraignments could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Dryer. Defendants could make a brief "court appearance" without leaving the jail by appearing before a camera in a secured room. On a split-television screen, the defendant could see the judge, the prosecuting and defense attorneys simultaneously.
Arraignments, while important, are fairly routine, said Dryer. Not only would the tremendous expense of transporting defendants by armed officers be eliminated, there is less chance of escape or injury. In 1985, Ronnie Lee Gardner shot an attorney to death and wounded a bailiff when a friend slipped him a gun in the Salt Lake district courthouse while Gardner was being escorted to a hearing. "Tragic situations like the Gardner shooting would be avoided," said Dryer. A June date has been set for a $30,000 to $40,000 video linkage between two Salt Lake courtrooms and the jail to provide video arraignments.
"There's absolutely no reason why video arraignments should not be implemented as soon as the money can be obtained."
Touch screen computers - similar to sophisticated video games - could greatly assist court users in understanding court procedures from child custody to small claims court, said Dryer. With Utah's increasing non-English speaking communities, touch-screen computers could explain legal terms in an individual's native language. A pilot touch-screen computer will be set up in Murray's circuit court by the end of the year.
Reducing the paper trail
The ultimate goal of the courts should be to reduce reliance of courts on paper. "You'll always have paper, but the primary method of case management ought to be electronically. It would reduce storage problems. It is more environmentally responsible. And electronic information can be used much faster with less risk of loss than with a paper-based system," said Dryer.
Immeasurable amounts of time and travel could be saved if court documents could be accessible by computer to the corrections department, social agencies, businesses, real estate companies, attorneys, judges and the press - or anyone else interested. "Instead of rummaging through all the new filings that day in the courthouse basement, you could, at your convenience, pull up files on your computer within the comfortable confines of your office.
"Whatever information is kept by the courts as public records should be accessible electronically. The duty of the courts is to serve the public."
Ninety percent of civil cases filed are settled before going to trial. To accommodate speedy resolution, Utah should adopt video conferencing. Courthouses should be equipped with television monitors statewide, he said.
"A Salt Lake attorney ought to be able conduct a hearing involving a St. George attorney without having to spend all day traveling. The money spent on equipment doesn't just help attorneys. It helps the public because it reduces legal costs."
Technology vs. human judgment
Decisions of ethics accompany decisions regarding advanced technology. Dryer is apprehensive about a technology being used by Detroit judges to handle a staggering criminal docket - "machine judges."
Computers are performing the same operations that humans perform. The term "artificial intelligence is a bug-a-boo word that conjures up a lot of bad connotations," he said. But Detroit was forced to try something to assist judges. A computer determines a composite presentence score - based on a variety of variables such as prior record, drug history, severity of crime. The computer spits out what it would recommend as prison time if the defendant is convicted. Confronted with this information, many defendants choose to accept a plea bargain - saving the court trial time.
"It's an attempt to get uniformity into sentencing. But some judges haven't been real wild about it because it may be sacrificing the good judgment of the judge for efficiency. It can be dehumanizing," said Dryer.
"The trick of technology is to meet the demands of a changing society but avoid intruding on sound judgment."