TUCSON (CN) – Two weeks into testing a new “eBench” project that has installed touch-screen case-management monitors in a few Tucson courtrooms, judges have discovered that the state-of-the-art technology is having at least one desired effect: It’s making them look smarter.
Three judges in Pima County Superior Court are currently using the monitors or “dashboards” during hearings and trials, with long-term plans to spread the technology to all of Pima Superior’s 52 judges and, eventually, on to other courthouses throughout the state.
Developed by Florida-based Mentis Technologies, the eBench interface, a large screen attached to the bench in a courtroom and angled so that litigants can still face their judge, allows judges to complete full-text searches of documents and statutes with just a few finger flicks. Integrated with the court’s case-management system, eBench also allows judges to view and change their calendars quickly, and links their electronic comments with case files so they can be viewed by judicial assistants and clerks.
“My goal is, hopefully, [that] it’s seamless for those that are appearing in front of me … and that I appear smarter,” Judge Jeffrey Bergin, presiding judge of the family law bench, told Courthouse News during a recent demonstration of the new system.
“I am able to quickly go to parts of the file that I think are important, or they mention during the hearing, and I can bring it up while we are talking and I can look at it and I can reference it,” Bergin said. “So even if I hadn’t totally digested it prior to walking into the courtroom, I am able to do it while we are there and talk intelligently.”
While sliding through different screens, still a bit hesitantly, and bringing up a calendar of hearings to show how to change it with a few taps of his finger, Bergin explained that, just two weeks ago, instead of gliding through digital files, he’d be sifting through impossible stacks of paper files and flipping through law books, all while attempting to listen to a litigant or attorney.
“They’d know that I’m searching for it, and I’d be trying to listen while I’m searching,” he said.
Judge Scott Rash, who sits on the criminal bench but also has experience on the civil side, said that the eBench system is particularly useful in the faster-paced world of the criminal law, where “80 percent of your time is spent in the courtroom.”
“For a judge on the criminal bench, there’s a lot of information that you need really quickly,” he said. “Particularly during morning calendar, you’ll hear anywhere from 15-20 cases, sometimes a lot more, so you’re jumping between those, and you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen in any one of those cases.”
Rash sat before the monitor and demonstrated how to pull up the full text of the Arizona Revised Statutes in a matter of seconds. This is a particularly useful tool provided by eBench, he said, explaining that just a few days before an attorney appearing before him had questioned the content of a particular statute.
Using his new monitor, Rash was able to conjure the text of the statute immediately and prove the attorney wrong.
“I don’t have to bring out the books anymore,” he said.
Charles Harrington, presiding judge of the Civil Bench, is also testing eBench but was unable to attend to the demonstration due to illness.
The eBench pilot project, which began in late August, is part of the Arizona Administrative Office of the Court’s (AOC) effort to make courts as “paperless” as possible.
The technology is being tested in Pima County Superior, the state’s second largest court and one of only two with its own information technology (IT) department, but the plan is to introduce it to 13 other county courts after “a fair amount of tailoring” in Tucson, according to Pima County Superior Court Administrator Kent Batty.
While there’s no set time frame for that to happen, Pima County’s 49 other judges will likely begin using the monitors soon, and they’ll be installed in chambers as well, Batty said.
“I suspect that once we’ve got maybe a month under our belt with these [judges] and haven’t discovered any problems, we’ll probably spread it pretty quickly through our own bench,” he said.
But it could still be years before the technology spreads to Arizona’s other county courts, most of which are comparatively small and serve mostly rural areas. The main obstacle, Batty said, is the relatively high cost of the hardware. Each interface runs about $400, with other costs like staff time and IT services harder to quantify.
“It’s not cheap,” Batty said. “It’s not something that many courts could easily write a check for.”
He added that, “beyond the cost of desktop hardware, part of what the state will be looking at is what we have to do to our tech infrastructure in order to accommodate the system. I don’t think anyone has hard numbers on the cost.”
Laura Johnston, Pima County’s Director of Information Technology and one of the court’s point persons on the project, said that she likes eBench because it was “designed from a judge’s perspective, and the “information is organized the way that a judge thinks.”
“It certainly gives them more contemporary tools to work with, which they haven’t had up to this point,” she said. “It’s hugely important in terms of providing the judges with better tools to be able to conduct the whole courtroom experience, and it’s eliminating paper from the environment – if you saw the amount of paper that they have to deal with in preparing for a case, it’s astronomical.”
According to Heather Murphy, spokeswoman for the AOC, there are no plans to introduce the eBench system in the state’s largest court. Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix uses a “different technology system to manage its records in the courtroom,” she said.
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