Primer on Advanced Courtroom Technology

Primer on Advanced Courtroom Technology

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New technology that allows parties to submit exhibits in an electronic format is allowing federal courtrooms across the country to become "paperless."

The Federal Judiciary has adopted strategic information technology initiatives targeted at reducing the reliance on paper and achieving economies in its business processes. One of these initiatives is the new case-management program, CM/ECF. Another initiative is the use of technology in the courtroom. The Judicial Conference of the United States in March 1999 endorsed the use of advanced courtroom technology and urged that it be considered necessary when new courtrooms were planned and built. Plans were also made to retrofit existing courtrooms with the new technology.

The funding for these new technologies was initially targeted for new courthouses, with one in every six courtrooms furnished with the appropriate technology. Under this approach, funding for existing courtrooms in the older courthouses proved to be a struggle for the courts because of the high cost. Over the past several years, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) worked to secure as much of the available resources as possible for the older courtrooms and passed the money to the circuit executive offices. Courts were invited by their circuits to apply for the funding. One to two existing courtrooms in each circuit are now being retrofitted with the technology each year.

The judiciary's strategic program objectives for advanced courtroom technology provide the following: 1) installation of video evidence presentation systems; 2) installation of videoconferencing systems in buildings housing three or more courtrooms; and 3) installation of real-time receiving software and monitors for district judges and courtroom personnel in all district courtrooms equipped with courtroom technology.

Courts were recently delegated authority by the director of the AOUSC, L. Ralph Mecham, to contract for courtroom technologies design and installation support in existing courthouses. The responsibility for contracting design services, installation of equipment and oversight rests with the clerk of court.

Explanation of Advanced Courtroom Technology

Video Evidence Presentation Systems: These provide a means to present evidence electronically through an integrated system of document cameras, videotape players, laser disc players, CD-ROM players, annotating devices and projection monitors for participants (e.g., judges, attorneys, jury, court reporter and gallery) in the courtroom. This technology practically eliminates the need for documents and other objects to be passed to each trial participant for examination, increasing the speed of the proceedings while improving comprehension of the material. These technologies are useful in a variety of proceedings including jury trials, bench trials and evidentiary hearings.

One to two existing courtrooms in each circuit are now being retrofitted with the technology each year.

Videoconferencing: This provides live, two-way audio and video transmission between a court and a remote site (such as a divisional office or a prison) to transmit speech and images. It offers opportunities to conduct some court proceedings without the necessity of having all participants present in a single courtroom.

Electronic Means of Taking the Record: New digital recording systems now permit the judge and other court personnel to be integrated into the existing real-time system through real-time receiving software and monitors. Digital recording systems have more clarity than the old electronic recording systems and use CDs instead of cassette tapes.1

The various equipment that is installed in the courtrooms include the following:

  • A document camera enables counsel to present evidence to the judge and jury via courtroom monitors/projection screen. This evidence can be in any medium (documents, pictures, nega-tives, x-rays, 3-D objects.) The judge can turn off the monitors/screens to preview evidence before it is admitted for jury viewing.
  • Video monitors are placed at the judge's bench, courtroom deputy's station, witness and attorney tables and on the evidence presentation equipment cart. The witness monitor and cart monitor are equipped with touch-screen technology. The judge may request monitors for the gallery and for overflow.
  • Touch-screen video monitors enable the witness and counsel to draw, point and highlight on the video monitor any evidence or document that is displayed through the system. The image of the document or other exhibit can be marked up with no harm being done to the original.
  • A video cassette recorder (VCR) allows playback of evidence through the video monitors. The VCR contains a freeze-frame feature on the remote control that allows the operator to slowly advance or freeze an image. Counsel or a witness may use the touch-screen video monitor on a frame of the tape.
  • A color video printer is available for counsel to print an image of a piece of evidence as it has been displayed through the system. Annotations can be printed as well. The printer enables counsel to preserve any document or piece of evidence for the record.
  • Computer input is available if counsel wishes to plug in a computer and present computer evidence or make slide presentations. Counsel provides his or her own computer and software, but any standard system can be plugged into the court's audio/video display.
  • Audio input is available if counsel wants to use a tape recorder or a computer with a sound card to present a recording or music as evidence through the sound system.
  • A customized presentation cart that has an ADA-compliant lectern holds the document camera, VCR, video printer, audio input, computer input and a touch-screen video monitor.
  • Attorney "smart tables" contain access plates for real-time reporting in district courts, modem access, the court's electronic docket, local area network and attorney laptop connections for display of presentation software. The attorneys will have access to Westlaw or Lexis-Nexus, as well as Internet and e-mail access from their laptops. PowerPoint, Harvard Graphics and Corel Presentations are some of the most common examples of publishing/ graphic software. This type of software package is sometimes referred to as a slide show presentation, which allows counsel to illustrate and augment presentations such as opening and closing statements. Evidence-presentation software is designed to facilitate the organization and presentation of evidence in the courtroom. With this software, it is possible to quickly locate and display exhibits, to project side-by-side views of exhibits and annotate exhibits on screen, as well as numerous other functions that may enhance and expedite evidence presentation. Some of the most commonly used evidence presentation systems are Trial Director, Verdict Systems Sanctions and Trial Pro.
  • In addition to the evidence presentation equipment, the court may offer audio teleconferencing in the courtroom, permitting the judge and other participants in the courtroom to listen to, and hold conversations with, parties outside the court. Control of this unit is via the touch screen on either the judge's or courtroom deputy's bench.
  • Video conferencing, now available in many districts, allows the court to include several remote sites during a videoconference, giving the flexibility to hold hearings and take witness testimony from the various sites.


The courts offer basic training to lawyers in preparation for trial with the evidence presentation system. User manuals are written by the court and are available on the various courts' web sites. Some courts offer CLE credit with the training.

Judges' Comments

Judges who have the evidence presentation technology in their courtrooms state that running a paperless courtroom saves trial time. Evidence presentation software allows the attorneys to be more organized, and they no longer have to "fuss with lots of loose papers." The jury sees the evidence at the same time the witness is testifying about a particular document or piece of evidence. The witness can annotate an exhibit or demonstrate a situation or scenario using the touch-screen monitor, making it easier to understand his testimony. An instant printout of the annotation is available for evidence marking. No paper document needs to be passed around for viewing. Thousands of pages of evidence can be sorted on an attorney's laptop. Videotaped depositions can also be presented for impeachment purposes. Attorneys can focus on key exhibits, shortening the time for closing arguments.

Videoconferencing equipment allows the parties to save travel, money and time. There is efficiency in time; the judge can virtually transport a person or group to any corner of the state or country and back again at the touch of a button. The equipment provides resource efficiency. The court can share information through audio and video equipment and personal computers. The judge can zoom in on documents for clarification and focus. The court has greater flexibility in scheduling hearings. Video-conferencing eliminates problems associated with travel, multiple conflicting schedules and high costs with a single date for the hearing. Traveling in bad weather is no longer a concern. The judge has a better view of the testifying witness because one can look the remote witness in the face rather than in profile or the back of the head. The picture-within-a-picture technology allows the judge to see all parties, both in the courtroom and at the remote site all at the same time. The real focus is on the hearing, and not the technology.

Limitations and Financial Realities

The installation of this equipment costs a great deal of money. Budget limitations may preclude a court from going forward with this technology. Retrofitting an existing courtroom requires new sound systems and additional acoustical material. The AOUSC does not provide funds for acoustics or architectural changes to the millwork in the courtroom. Existing spaces may pose a limitation on the incorporation of technology because of the inability to design appropriate infrastructure. Therefore, the installation of the technology itself may be compromised and can potentially involve a great deal of time as well as money, in addition to the accessibility and performance of the system.


Electronic information is commonplace in our lives and now in the courtroom. Advanced technology allows attorneys to present and display many types of evidence and testimony to the judge and jury in clear and more comprehensible ways. It is hoped that this new technology will soon become an integral part of all attorneys' hearings and trial strategies.


1 Real-time transcription is currently only available in federal district courts; bankruptcy courts use recording technology. Return to article

Journal Date: 
Monday, July 1, 2002