Bar News - January 21, 2015
Criminal Law: Federal Court in Concord Gets a Tech Upgrade
By: David Ruoff
The persuasive force of demonstrative evidence has taken a strong hold in modern trial court practice, but as technological advances have proceeded as light speed – compared with the glacial pace of the court system – so, too, have the expectations of jurors.
Upgraded attorney podium in Courtroom 4 at the Warren Rudman Federal Courthouse in Concord includes a touch screen that enables lawyers to control what jurors see on their monitors.
A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but a picture is no longer enough. Jurors want videos, emails, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds. They expect to be persuaded by a multimedia presentation, and that lawyers will be skilled in the use of technology in the courtroom.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in federal court. Courtroom 4 at the Warren B. Rudman US Courthouse in Concord was recently upgraded with a complete state-of-the-art, high definition case-presentation system. This includes new HD screens throughout the courtroom, a new HD camera platform and a touchpad control screen for the attorneys. The system integrates smoothly with all software platforms: Mac, Microsoft, tablets, PCs and laptops. It is fully HDMI compatible, which means the visual depictions are clear and transitions from image to image are quick.
Attorneys can use this system for a completely wireless presentation; they can also hardwire into it via HDMI cables, or use a combination of both. Full-scale, high-speed wireless Internet access is also available. While the wireless Internet access is available throughout the courthouse for attorney use, the wireless-access case presentation system is secure – so only the attorney can access it. According to Dana Bauer, the director of IT at the federal district court, the only caveat about using an Internet-based presentation system is that the user is at the mercy of the Internet service provider, something over which the court has no control.
Bauer says the best advice is to have a back-up of all programs that you plan to use on a flash drive, tablet or laptop. Also, the better practice is to use the HDMI cable hookups if possible, because there is less chance of a software glitch or wireless interference. However, most tablets and older laptops do not have HDMI ports.
This brings us to the one limitation of the federal court’s new system: Attorneys will need more recent hardware to use it effectively. This is because all HD screens – the only way the jurors will view the images presented – have a different aspect ratio (16:9) than traditional computer screens (which are not as rectangular).
As with any courtroom presentation, “attorneys who invest more time and effort to acquire courtroom technology skills will have more capabilities; this is no different from any other trial skill,” according to the Federal Judicial Center’s helpful 2001 publication, Effective Use of Courtroom Technology: A Judge’s Guide to Pretrial and Trial, which is available online as a free download. Anyone planning to use technology in the courtroom is advised to download and review this general overview (even though is it probably due for an update).
The keys to effective use of courtroom technology are: 1) be organized with your materials; and 2) familiarize yourself with the operating software, with an emphasis on “be organized.” Both of these will require you to practice using the technology. To assist in this regard, the federal court will be holding informal brown bag lunches in the coming months to demonstrate the courtroom technology and provide guidance to the bar on how to use it. These sessions will be a valuable resource, and the skills acquired are easily transferred to state court practice, because the federal court’s system does not rely on just one platform.
The federal court brown bag lunch sessions will be held at noon on consecutive Wednesdays on Feb. 25, March 4, and March 11. “We will demo the new technology, discuss some best practices for attorneys using the technology, and give attorneys a chance to bring their tablets and/or laptops and to try the new system out as time allows following the presentation,” says US District Court Clerk Dan Lynch.
Unlike many courtroom systems, the federal court’s setup does not limit the attorney to a particular court-provided program. Thus, if you find a presentation system that is cost-effective and easy to manage, you can take it with you to federal court. If you have an HDMI projector (which are relatively inexpensive) and a screen, you can take your presentation to any superior court as well.
Learning a new trial skill always takes time and effort. While using technology has been traditionally considered a luxurious accessory to trial practice – something that only large firms with well-heeled clients could afford to do – that is no longer true. In fact, the NHBA Ethics Committee issued an opinion that imposes on all of us a professional obligation to stay current with technology. See “The Use of Cloud Computing in the Practice of Law,” Ethics Committee Advisory Opinion #2012-13/4, which is available on the NH Bar Association’s website. It makes sense, because we cannot and should not practice law with our heads in the sand.
|David W. Ruoff
David Ruoff is a partner in the law firm of Howard & Ruoff. He is vice president of the New Hampshire Bar Association Board of Governors.