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November 22, 2005

Computers in the Courtroom

When will attorneys regularly begin using computers in the courtroom?

The question just crossed my mind because I'm working on a grant proposal to get funding to produce a criminal practice manual for public defenders in Montana. If you have ever done any criminal defense work in D.C., you are probably familiar with the Criminal Practice Institute's criminal practice manual. The manual is a comprehensive resource for DC criminal defense practitioners, containing both federal and local case law and other resources that defense attorneys commonly need. It is also a trial manual, covering every aspect of the trial process from pre-trial release (which is generally the first issue you face when you're first appointed) to jury instructions and everything in between. Only five chapters are available online (covering severance and joinder, motions to suppress statements, motions to suppress eyewitness ID, and motions to suppress on 4th amendment grounds, and other grounds evidence), but those should be enough to demonstrate what an invaluable resource this can be—especially for new attorneys just getting their start here. It's great for learning the local law and procedure, it provides starting points for many of the motions and briefs you might need to write, and it also makes a great trial resource—something you can take with you to court so you have case law and advice at your fingertips if something comes up unexpectedly. The one problem with it in the last regard is that the printed version is one huge book and a big hassle to haul around.

So my idea is that, while this manual is great for DC, it won't travel to other jurisdictions as-is because it is focused on DC practice, customs, regulations, law, etc. Still, wouldn't attorneys in other jurisdictions benefit from something like this? And how much more would those attorneys benefit if they were working in a brand new model PD-system that is attempting to implement the ABA's “10 Principles of A Public Defense System” My thinking (er, hope) is that they would benefit a lot, hence the grant proposal.

But as I think about this project, I'm also thinking: Why don't attorneys have laptops in the courtroom? Or, barring that, why not at least handheld computers (e.g. today's Palm pilots or Windoze handhelds) that have resources like this stored on them? The judge has a computer at her disposal on the bench, the clerk has one, so why not the attorneys? And now that I think about it, it seems like the attorneys in federal court (at least in Alexandria, VA, where I've been to the federal court house a couple of times) do have computers at their tables, although I never saw them use those machines. Having computers installed in the courtroom would be less useful than allowing attorneys to bring them in, anyway.

But imagine going into court armed with a compilation of the relevant law you think you're going to need for a case, including every possible issue that might arise at trial. And I don't mean just the handful of cases you've researched and printed in advance. Of course you need to have that, but what if you could have even more?

Real-world example: I had to make an argument last week in court for which I was poorly prepared and which I took mostly from verbal instructions from my supervisor. He provided the case name and the two prongs of the relevant rule it established, and I then argued that as if I knew what I was talking about. Of course, the judge asked me for a cite to the case and I didn't have it. Neither did my supervisor. So we looked really stupid. If we had had the CPI manual with us, we would have had the cite. However, one reason we didn't have the manual was because it's so big we don't like to carry it around. That would have been the perfect situation in which to have the manual on a handheld where, with a couple of taps on an index or something, we could have had the cite. Not only would it have saved us from looking stupid, but it might have been a big help to our client, and that's really the point, isn't it?

So the question is: Do you think it's only a matter of time before it becomes common practice for attorneys to use computers in the courtroom? Is this already common in some jurisdictions? Or is this something that just wouldn't be that helpful?

Posted November 22, 2005 11:33 PM | 3L crimlaw

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i think the main issue here is the generational gap between current law students and older attorneys that still look cases up in the books. for example, although previous supervisors of mine have had laptops for exactly that purpose, they didn't feel comfortable enough to look things up as quickly as people our age do.

so my take: give it 10 years. then we'll all have them.

Posted by: monica at November 23, 2005 11:25 AM

One of the attorneys where I worked at this summer talked about how convenient it was to have online access via their treo. Though not a trial practice, often at meetings or even testimony on the Hill he could look for info that was on our website -- all of our workproduct goes up as part of our advocacy -- and incorporate it into his talk and testimony.

ok. not a trial, but you see it being done. How hard is it to put that stuff on the web and get a web accessible handheld?

Posted by: gr at November 23, 2005 11:40 AM

One of the things that amazes me is how hooked-up the attorneys are in these big federal cases. You think Martha Stewart's lawyers didn't have computers in the courtroom?

But then why don't we? When certainly our clients are facing more serious penalties?

Every year, the newer attorneys come in and want to introduce more technology into the practice, and I think it's a great thing. I think it will surely be less than 10 years before young new PDs are bringing their laptops to court.

Posted by: blondie at December 6, 2005 07:51 PM

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