Courtrooms are especially vulnerable to infrastructure loss. If the power goes out or communications cease, justice grinds to a halt. Add to that the pressure of increasingly complex systems and the difficult physical layouts of courthouses, and the challenges to courtroom managers are unlike any other.

Court managers consider keeping the courtroom safe in the event of a disaster a top priority. Secondary is ensuring the overall court system continues operating in the case of an emergency. Such emergencies have happened too often in the past few years. Hurricane Katrina is one example with far-reaching consequences. Courtrooms along the Gulf Coast were shut down for months, leading to a backup still felt today.

After Katrina, courts in eight New Orleans parishes were damaged or destroyed, and the city had to relocate more than 8,000 prisoners. The damage and disorganization led to the release of many suspects without a trial because they had been held too long without charges being filed. Evidence in approximately 3,000 pending criminal cases was lost. Witnesses and victims were no longer in the area, and even a year later, many had not returned. As a result, cases were delayed or dismissed for lack of witnesses.

While the courthouses couldn’t have avoided damage from the hurricane, some of the resulting communications and electrical needs could have been better managed, at least on a limited scale. Redundancy, backup power and satellite communications are just some efforts beginning to be used to ensure courtrooms stay operational, no matter the crisis.

With or without emergencies, the courts and the amount of cases continue to grow. The need for low-voltage integrators and installers is at its highest point. But understanding the individual courtrooms, how they operate and what they need is not common knowledge for every electrical contractor.

Deployment of technology in courtrooms has been slow and steady. In 2002, the Federal Judicial Center, an educational and research agency, found that one-quarter of U.S. trial courts were what could be called high tech: with an evidence presentation system, projectors, laptops and a sound system. Fredric Lederer, chancellor professor of law at William and Mary College and director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology (CLCT), estimates the number now is closer to one-third of all federal courtrooms. Those high-tech courtrooms, he said, also include verbatim recording with electronic transcripts or digital audiovisual recordings. Increasingly, many courtrooms also have videoconferencing capabilities. System technology helps those with disabilities appear in court using assisted listening devices.

What’s the verdict?

With all the technology deployed, those installing it need to work to ensure all is implemented correctly. So who is the culprit? Contractors, engineers and IT managers make mistakes in courtrooms all the time, according to Martin Gruen, deputy director for technology and courtroom design at the CLCT, Williamsburg, Va. Gruen follows up on these mistakes. The center is a nonprofit research, education and consulting organization that seeks to improve the administration of justice through the use of appropriate technology. Court-oriented, CLCT is a joint initiative of William and Mary School of Law and the National Center for State Courts.

Installation problems are varied and wide ranging. A courtroom sound system is one good example, Gruen said. He often finds 8-inch speakers installed near the ceiling in ceremonial courtrooms where the ceilings are high and have architectural obstructions such as marble and wooden archways. In such cases, those speakers simply don’t work.

“People may say, ‘Put this speaker here,’ or ‘Move it because it is in the way of the lights,’” Gruen said. “But they have to look at the placement, the directionals.”

In the courtroom, audio is critical. Not only does everyone in the courtroom need to hear, but the microphones need to pick up voices and send that audio elsewhere, even to another part of the world. Capturing multiple voices from a courtroom is no small task. Designers have to consider a system that will pick up voices from a distance, without causing feedback. Wireless microphones are not possible, since they could be intercepted by an outside party.

Furthermore, for evidence, presentation projectors and 17-inch LCD screens may need to be fed by multiple computers. This technology is quickly replacing the paper evidence tradition.

“The average high-tech courtroom is more complex than any corporate boardroom,” Gruen said.

Because of special needs and the complexity of the technology, mistakes are common. Gruen does a lot of troubleshooting. Most often, he said, the architect, the engineer and the installer failed to understand how a courtroom works.

Every courtroom is different. On the federal level, members generally stand still and are easier to record, while in state and county courthouses, occupants are more mobile.

“The judge and attorney can’t be thinking about the technology. If they are, it’s not doing things the way they think it should,” Gruen said.

Gruen said that an integrator and installer need to learn what the expectations are and convert that to the technology. It is common for integrators and installers to separate the tasks.

“More often than not, I do the programming, and someone does the installation,” Gruen said. Also, courthouses are increasingly employing their own IT people and audiovisual department to address some of the technology concerns. Groups, such as the Center for Legal and Court Technology, provide much of the training for these IT people.

“I’m hoping to see more vendors learning about the courts and getting involved in the market,” he said. “I like the idea of good, solid A/V companies working with courts. The court market doesn’t go away.”

Technology can save time. In rural communities, judges often travel from one circuit to another, but technology allows a judge to sit in on sessions remotely. In overcrowded urban courtrooms, remote service can reduce time spent waiting. With telecommunications from CourtCall, Los Angeles, witnesses and attorneys can make court appearances without appearing in court. For $55, attorneys can make appointments to meet with a judge in the courtroom using a phone line. CourtCall links judges, attorneys and witnesses 1,500 times a day.

“The higher gas goes, the more expensive flights are, the more people value [CourtCall’s] service,” said Jim Kelley, CourtCall national sales manager.

Dedicated recording, playback and transcription technology for courts is another area of growth. AudioSoft, San Diego, makes dedicated recording technology. The system can be scaled from notebook-based solutions for mobile courts to systems for high-volume courts, local hearings and jury trials, providing audio and CCTV recording for storage, playback and transcription needs.In addition, Polycom Inc., Virginia Beach, Va., sells integration software for an array of voice/data/video and Web solutions. Meridian Technologies Inc., Elmont, N.Y., provides digital fiber optic transmission systems for courtroom serial digital VDV and HDTV solutions.

Putting technology to use

The CLCT is working with William and Mary School of Law to develop a sample courtroom, using some of these technologies not only to save attorneys, witnesses and even jurors a trip to the courthouse, but to keep the court up and running in the case of a disaster. The CLCT has helped build courtroom technology in places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they designed and installed the technology and trained the staff to use it.

Expectations about technology in the courtroom are rising. Increasingly, law students use technology in class and will expect to see it in court.

“The critical issue is that a court gets what it wants and what it needs—which can be inherently difficult,” Lederer said. Electrical contractors have to understand how lawyers and judges act and think. For example, Lederer, who sat behind the bench himself, said judges tend to need two monitors, one for evidence and another for other business, such as e-mail.

“Many might say why pay for two monitors when you can switch back and forth,” he said. “But in the judge’s world, they are likely to be working on one screen and looking at another.”

Usually, he said, judges can be very forthcoming. “When we interview judges, we listen to them and try to ascertain what they need,” he said. “As is always true, the client turns out to be always right. And even in ordinary jobs, you always have to listen to the judge.”

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.