Video Court The Future Is Here
As technology increasingly pervades our daily lives, we see more "walls" come tumbling down. Much has been written about how video conferences will affect travel in the next century. In Texas, its effect is already being felt in the courtroom.
The Western District of Texas is enormous. It covers the expanse from Waco to Midland to El Paso to Del Rio and back to San Antonio and Austin. Three- hundred and fifty miles separate Waco from Del Rio; 550 miles (and a time zone) separate El Paso and San Antonio. The district's four bankruptcy judges„two each in Austin and San Antonio—hold court in five cities.
While there is air service to El Paso and Midland, it is still a significant challenge (not to mention expense) to ship the judge and the necessary staff to those cities for the few days each month that court is in session in those divisions. Travel logistics require first plane in and last plane out travel to return for "home" venue hearings the next day. (If there were no budgetary and time constraints, they could all spend the night before and after the full day of hearings.)
These time limitations strain both the judge and the parties. Litigants in the traveling venues might feel constrained to present their cases differently than they would if they knew the judge did not have to catch a plane. A judge cannot help but feel the time pressure of catching the last plane home.
When faced with the need to build a new courtroom and chambers in Midland a few years ago as a result of reallocation of space, Chief Judge Larry Kelly looked into the possibility of conducting hearings by video instead of in person. Video court is not a completely foreign concept. We all have seen news stories on television showing arraignments and detention hearings via a video hook-up, which allows the accused to "appear" in court while still in jail. These video proceedings avoid the expense and exposure of transporting the prisoners from the jail to the courthouse.
Building a new courtroom, chambers and the associated facilities in Midland was projected to cost around $350,000. It would also require an additional $40,000 per year to rent the space from the GSA. While this would fill the traditional need for a place to hold court, the space would only be used for a few days each month. By comparison, the total construction and equipment costs for video court set up was only approximately $150,000 and the rent was reduced to $15,000 per year. Eliminating the travel costs of at least three people for 10 trips per year provided even further savings.
The facilities built in Midland for the litigants consist of a small courtroom (roughly 26' x 26'), a waiting room (for those waiting for their cases to be heard) and a conference room for attorneys. Another room was built in Austin where Judge Kelly, his law clerk, courtroom deputy and court reporter sit for the hearings. A member of the local clerk's office is in the "Midland courtroom" with the litigants to provide any assistance that might be needed.
Holding video court required changes in the local rules. Two sets of exhibits must be filed five days before the hearing—one for the clerk in Midland and the other to be shipped to Austin. Also, if an Austin attorney has a hearing in Midland, that attorney must go to Midland for the hearing. This avoids the appearance of impropriety of having one party with the judge while others are hundreds of miles away.
What do the parties actually see by video? Each end of the transmission sees the same thing—one monitor showing the courtroom in Midland and the other showing the judge. (This allows each location to see what the other is seeing and to know if there is a problem with any of the equipment.) The courtroom also has a digital camera that can project one page at time as an electronic combination of an overhead projector and a blackboard. However, some practitioners report that using it is somewhat problematic.
The system has been generally accepted by those in Midland, even though it does have limitations that make it better suited for routine matters rather than large ones. The size of the courtroom limits the number of people that can participate in any hearing. Since the camera does not have the peripheral vision that the judge would have, it is harder for some to catch the court's attention to be recognized to speak. If the trial has a substantial volume of documents that are introduced for rebuttal, a video hearing will end up being taken under advisement while those documents are shipped to Judge Kelly for review. (This is not a great change from prior practice, since it is unlikely that the judge would have been able to read those documents during the hearing and then issue an immediate ruling.) If the matter justifies the expense, the parties can always schedule a "live" hearing with the judge in Austin.
Perhaps the greatest drawback is the potential for the participants to lose the personal "contact" that going to court gives. There is simply no substitute for being in the same room with the judge for each to get familiar with the other. To keep that touch alive, Judge Kelly travels to Midland twice a year for "in person" hearings, and to spend time with the bar there.
The benefits for the judge are obvious—increased productivity by reducing travel time. When the hearings end, he walks down the hall to his office and gets back to work, instead of waiting in an airport for a flight. The benefits to the parties and attorneys are a little more subtle. Instead of having very limited access to the court (one trip per month), they can have video hearings (including witnesses) on short notice (such as first day, cash collateral or other "emergency" hearings). They also can schedule video court time for other matters as well. Regularly scheduling and conducting stay hearings by video saves time and money for consumer debtors' attorneys who can avoid travel to Austin for the hearing they need to keep the stay from automatically terminating. Taxpayers benefit from reducing the expense of constructing, maintaining and traveling to the Midland courtroom.
The bankruptcy court is not the only one benefitting from this technology. The U.S. Trustee (based in Austin) also has used it to conduct creditors' meetings in chapter 11 cases when it is difficult to justify sending a person to Midland for only one or two meetings. It also has been used by a state court to take testimony from someone in California when it was impractical or impossible to get that person to Texas. The clerk's office has even used the system for training its staff in the divisional offices.
The future is even more promising for the project. Already on the agenda are upgrades of the cameras (going from 15 frames per second to 30), upgrading the sound system and installing a video location in El Paso. When El Paso comes on line, it will be possible for El Paso attorneys to participate in Midland hearings (by a three-city link) without having to travel. It is even possible that the two other divisions of the district could be added as video locations because their current case loads would never justify scheduling a judge to travel there every month.
The project could easily be extended outside of the West Texas bankruptcy court. Many western states have one, two or all of their judges stationed in one city. Video courtrooms could be added in other cities to provide greater court access to outlying areas. Also, as bankruptcy appellate panels grow in popularity, oral arguments could be conducted by video, instead of requiring that both the judges and attorneys travel to one location. In this age of budgetary restrictions and technological improvements, we will all be adjusting our ideas of what it means to go to court in the foreseeable future.