Michigan to unveil business ‘cybercourt’

When two high-tech companies become embroiled in a legal dispute, the technologies at stake can become quickly outdated by the end of the 18-month-long legal fight they might typically have to endure.

To speed up such litigation, Michigan Gov. John Engler this week signed legislation creating an advanced “cybercourt” that will use digital record-keeping, videoconferencing, digital presentation devices and other high-tech tools to drastically cut the time it takes for time-critical business lawsuits to be resolved.

Matthew Resch, the deputy press secretary for Engler, said the new cybercourt will be in place by October to handle business and commercial lawsuits involving more than US$25,000. The court will be conducted by a judge, without a jury. Both sides will have to agree to hear the case in the special new court, he said.

Similar courtrooms are already in use in places like Greensboro, N.C., where the North Carolina Business Court has been using various electronic technologies to hear complex business cases since 1996.

“This is not so much the wave of the future anymore,” Resch said. “It’s right now.”

In Michigan, the cybercourt is expected to cost US$25,000 to US$50,000 to build and equip with high-speed Internet access, presentation hardware for evidence and documents, file management capabilities and more. Now that the governor has signed the bill authorizing the court’s creation, consultants will move to design the system and get it online, Resch said.

In North Carolina’s cyberbusiness court, Superior Court Judge Ben Tennille hears cases involving plaintiffs and defendants in different locations through videoconferencing, instantaneous document management and other technologies. The only thing stopping the continuing spread of such high-tech courtrooms across the nation is money, he said.

“I think the technology is there,” Tennille said. Using these courtrooms, lawyers and judges have access to filings and all documentation around the clock, whether they are in their offices, on the road or even at home. “There’s no question about it that this is what the future’s going to look like,” he said. “It’s more efficient, and it’s simply more economical” because both parties can avoid costly travel, accommodations and other expenses related to cases.

Electronic filing also means error-free filings, avoiding misfiled paper folders and lost documents. And in light of the recent terrorism attacks in the U.S., electronic documents also avoid problems with anthrax scares and other concerns because there are no paper files to become contaminated, he said.

Instead of lugging around large, heavy “banker’s boxes” filled with paper files, attorneys can put all of their digital files on CD-ROMs and take them wherever they need to go, popping them into the court’s computer system to call up exhibits or present evidence. “They literally can prepare their case and have it done” on a CD, Tennille said. “It’s truly amazing.”

Tennille said he has offered help to Michigan as that state prepares its cybercourt.

Steve Winsett, CEO and chief technology officer at CX Corp., a Greensboro, N.C.-based company that provides the software and hardware technologies that power the North Carolina Business Court, said the system allows everything to be controlled from one touchscreen in a courtroom, with separate overriding controls available only to the judge.

The hardware and software for a typical courtroom costs about US$35,000 and can run up to US$80,000 for courtrooms decked out “with as much technology as the U.S.S. Enterprise,” Winsett said. Their two proprietary software packages, CX2000 and Visual Theater, control case management/electronic filing and courtroom multimedia systems respectively, allowing lawyers and judges to call up any evidence, documents, files or photos at the touch of a screen. At the same time, the packages are easy for court officials and lawyers to use, with little training.

“If you’re using a Web browser, (that’s) more complicated than the software that runs this thing,” he said. “Our task was to make it as easy to use as an ATM machine.”

Central to the system is a server running Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server database. The software is designed around Windows NT 4.0 and can run on Windows 2000 or XP. Most of the other hardware used in the cybercourt is off-the-shelf equipment.

At least two other states, Louisiana and California, are preparing to deploy their own cybercourts, while others are in talks with his company, he said.

Fredric Lederer, a law professor at the College of William & Mary School of Law in Williamsburg, Va., testified before the Michigan legislature as it mulled the cybercourt concept and has provided advice and other help to the state. Lederer is also the director of the college’s Courtroom 21 electronic courtroom project, which was created in 1999 to use and prove technologies that can be used by courts in the future.

The courtroom at the college, described as “the most technologically advanced courtroom in the world,” was built with the assistance of the National Center for State Courts for student mock trials and experiments, but has also been home to several real trials, Lederer said. Some of the ideas implemented there will likely find their way into cybercourts in Michigan and elsewhere.

“Whatever Michigan builds will be just the first step in an evolutionary process,” Lederer said. “Michigan will be a proving ground.”