A glimpse inside the electronic courtroom of the future

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Colleagues call them the ``Mario Andrettis of court reporting.'' They are a new breed of court stenographer, who, armed with computer technology, can take down rapid-fire testimony faster than a judge can bang his gavel.

But there is more than superficial typing speed involved here. The new technology lies at the heart of a whole move toward the electronic ``courtroom of the future'' -- a thrust that could have an important impact on the United States legal process.

A fully equipped electronic courtroom is not yet operating in the real world administration of justice, although several law schools do sport mock trial facilities with push-button terminals and computer screens.

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This notwithstanding, hovering above downtown Detroit -- on the 16th floor of the City-County Building -- is the experimental computerized courtroom of Circuit Judge Robert J. Colombo Jr. Here computer terminals sit on the judge's bench, lawyers' table, and jury box. And a court stenographer quietly records testimony which, within seconds, reappears on the terminal screens.

This process affords instant retrieval of proceedings including on-demand review of cross-examination and other courtroom oratory by opposing lawyers, the judge, and the jury. It also allows counsel the opportunity to review verbatim proceedings each day via computer printout.

The potential is almost boundless, says Judge Colombo, whose courtroom now doubles as a trial setting and training ground for court reporters gearing up for the new technology.

A small group of observers recently viewed a reenactment of an actual trial interrogation in the Judge Colombo's Detroit courtroom:

Attorney: Your name, please?

Witness: Betty Jones

Attorney: Your relationship to the defendant?

Witness: His mother

Attorney: Were you on Spencer Street on May 21, 1976?

Witness: No. But my son was at my daughter's house there. . . .

This exchange appeared on computer screens for viewing throughout the courtroom within three seconds after each exchange -- almost instantaneously transcribed into understandable English from court stenographer Norma Jean Chanerl's computer shorthand.

Why is this so important?

Judge Colombo explains it in terms of clarifying testimony -- on the spot -- for trial participants. ``Lawyers are able to get transcripts [of testimony] at the end of each day [to review the record and plan for the next day's proceedings]'' he explains. ``This also assists jurors,'' the jurist says.

``If they have questions when they are deliberating, we can give them a printout of the testimony in the jury room. . . . They will also get a copy of my instructions on the law.''

The computerization of the taking of testimony also has significant impact on the appellate process. Now it often takes 11/2 to 2 years for challenged decisions from Judge Colombo's court and other Wayne County circuit courts to be reviewed by the Michigan Court of Appeals. ``For some cases, it takes as long as six months just to get the transcipts,'' Judge Colombo points out.

William C. Oliver, Wayne County's chief court reporter, says the new electronic process also can aid millions of hearing-impaired people who participate in trials as defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and jurors. Near-instantaneous screening of testimony, lawyers' arguments, and judge's instructions will put the deaf on equal footing with others who are part of the proceeding. Mr. Oliver points out that there are 225,000 hearing-impaired persons in Detroit alone. And he says the court has been required to bring in interpreters on the average of four times a month to accommodate those taking part in a trial.

At the core of the electronic courtroom is computer-aided transcription, so-called CAT technology. This is a system which links the stenotype machine with a minicomputer that translates the court reporter's shorthand notes into English text within a matter of seconds.

CAT has been available for almost a decade. But it has just been in the last year or two that it has taken hold for courtroom use. Now, according to the National Shorthand Reporters Association (NSRA), about one-third -- or 10,000 -- of America's court reporters are computer-trained.

The association's goal is to wire every courtroom in the US with CAT systems within five years, says NSRA President Raymond F. DeSimone. Mr. DeSimone and his court reporter colleagues admit they have much to gain from the success of the Detroit experiment. They have invested about $50,000 in the project themselves. But more important, they are concerned that political and public pressures to curb burgeoning trial costs today could result in replacing courtroom stenographers with tape recorders.

DeSimone stresses that court reporters own their own CAT systems -- which cost anywhere from $7,000 to as much as $50,000 for the most sophisticated machines. Courts will have to bear the costs of redesigning and rewiring facilities to accommodate the new equipment. But NSRA insists that will be minimal.

What is stressed by courtroom-of-the-future enthusiasts is efficiency and productivity resulting in an oiling of the often lethargic wheels of justice. For instance, with the aid of CAT court reporters should be able to produce up to 60 pages of transcipt an hour. Some will even be capable of turning out 80 to 100 pages, insists Jill Wilson, NSRA's director of research and technology. ``These are [the ones we call] the Mario Andrettis of court reporting,'' she smiles. In any event, this is a vast improvement over the average 12 to 16 pages produced under the traditional system of typing one's own notes.

Further, without CAT or a similar system, it takes stenographers an average of four hours to transcribe one hour of notes taken in court. With the computer, the transcription time is trimmed to a one-to-one ratio. And, of course, where terminal screens are placed right in the courtroom, unedited testimony is available on site.

The wired-up courtroom, as might be expected, has its detractors. Some are concerned about possible hidden costs to legal jurisdictions and the public. They also predict court reporters will pass along -- in hiked charges -- expenses incurred in purchasing new equipment.

In terms of operating in court, there are those who feel that viewing testimony on a television screen might influence a jury. Even Judge Colombo -- a strong believer in the new system -- says he would discourage attorneys who might excessively delay a trial to review printouts of testimony. He also stresses to a jury that they must ``listen carefully to testimony [as it is going on] and watch how people react under the stress of cross-examination.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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