Usually, spending a few hours in the middle of the day visiting with a judge in his courtroom makes for a less than pleasant experience. That wasn’t the case, though, on a recent visit to the St. Charles County Courthouse in what was an incredibly educational afternoon on the changing technology in the courtroom.
Judge Richard Zerr, District 4 Circuit Judge/11th Judicial Circuit Court Presiding Judge, has been instrumental in changing how business is conducted in local courts. The changes, according to Judge Zerr, can be traced back to around 2011.
“Things began to fundamentally change in 2011 when we rolled out e-Filing. With e-Filing, the Court began to receive and process cases as digital records using scanned images in a PDF format,” said Judge Zerr. “The full rollout took more than four years, and now every case in every Missouri circuit court processes in an electronic format.”
You may be familiar with the website case.net, where information has been available online for several years. “That’s the centerpiece of our effort to make the courts more transparent and accessible in multiple formats. We have also expanded the ability of our citizens to pay traffic tickets without a personal appearance, and to pay almost any fine assessed after disposition without having to appear in court.”
In addition to the positive changes for the average citizen, there have also been several changes for attorneys.
“The courts are open to attorneys to file cases and pleadings 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the usage records show a large percentage of what we receive is after 5 p.m.,” said Judge Zerr. “Our system now takes care of all the notifications previously made by mail, thereby providing savings to those who file cases in court, as well as the court that pays the postage for the notices it previously sent by mail.”
On top of all of that, all of the records currently taking up space in offices, closets, or wherever anyone can find space are now being put into digital form as well. “The old paper files are now digitized and the paper files are shredded, thereby alleviating the storage problem experienced by most courts,” said Judge Zerr. “On the bench, utilizing the application ‘eBench’ we have access to every file in our system with a few clicks. Previously, obtaining files not on the day’s docket required a trip to the file room to search for the file.”
Thankfully for everyone involved, those days are now in the rear-view mirror. Files are no longer buried in storage, at the bottom of a file cabinet, or lost on a desk. Judge Zerr says all of this allows him to be much more efficient.
“I’m dramatically more efficient as it relates to my ability to address any case on the Court and have access – almost instantaneously – to any new documents filed in a case,” he said. “With the documents handled by the Court being in a digital format, it seemed that we should begin to expand the ability to present cases to a jury in a digital format. My vision is that we are not too far away from a time when ‘Court’ will be a concept of dispute resolution and not a ‘place’.”
In other words, it may not be long before one can appear in court virtually – from basically wherever you are. Not only will this be more convenient for those who have to “appear,” but it can be cost-effective as well. “In our circuit, we have endeavored to make our courtrooms technologically advanced to the point that we would be able to support participation in ‘Court’ by persons from remote locations,” said Judge Zerr. “We routinely transact plea and sentencing on criminal cases with the defendant at a state or federal correctional institution. By not having to transport prisoners back and forth from prison for resolution of other cases, we save a tremendous amount of expense which would otherwise be paid by our county.”
Some of these advances are already in place — meaning the convenience of virtual appearances along with the cost savings is, in certain cases, already happening.
“We are able to conduct routine civil hearings with one or both attorneys appearing by video and they are able to save their clients the cost of the appearance of the attorney from Kansas City, Chicago or even as far away as Vietnam,” said Judge Zerr.
“At trial, we have the use of a document camera which can magnify an object many times to give the jury a clear view of the smallest of details. Maps and photographs can be displayed on our two 80″ screens and the witness can use our annotation equipment to mark on the photo a location or highlight an item.”
The available technology doesn’t stop there. Attorneys have additional new items to utilize as well. “Attorneys can use an application called ‘trial pad’ and connect from their iPad to our system via Apple TV. Our largest courtroom has a media suite which allows the media to capture – with the approval of the trial judge – a feed from the four cameras in the courtroom and control a media camera to unobtrusively take video of trial proceedings.”
All of these exciting technological advances don’t stop in Judge Zerr’s courtroom. “In our other courtrooms, we provide a unit called ‘NOMAD,’ which allows a full suite of digital evidence presentation tools to be moved from one courtroom to the next, set up in 30 minutes or less and make all of our courtrooms capable of doing a ‘paperless trial’.”
As one might expect, all of these exciting advances in the past few years have not gone unnoticed. “Our statewide applications, ‘Case.net’, ‘Pay by Web’, and ‘Track This Case’ won an International Award for technological excellence following only the Country of Dubai and the State of Arizona,” said Judge Zerr. “Our public access database, Case.net, has 21.1 million documents and gets 679 million hits a year. Track This Case, an application which allows users to sign up for notices of activity on a case and allows criminal defendants to receive e-mail or text notifications of appearance dates and payment dates, has 92,000 users with 3,000 new users and 5,000 new tracking requests monthly. Pay-By-Web, which allows users to pay traffic tickets and court fines over the internet, has had 19,000 transactions and handled payments of over $2.7 million.”
Clearly, those numbers represent a high rate of success; and Judge Zerr offered even more numbers to verify just how successful all of these advances have been. “The State Court website, Courts.Mo.Gov, provides access to the listed applications along with a tremendous amount of information about the courts, with 23.6 million hits per month,” he said. “In 2017 our e-Filing system handled 3 million filings, saving the filing party, paper, postage and time, and saving the courts paper, postage, storage, and labor, as well as providing access to our courts 24 hours a day. In the fiscal year 2017, we handled 15 million notifications which would otherwise had to be mailed by the parties or the court.”