General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine
Use of Interactive TV in the Ninth Judicial Circuit
In 1998, the Ninth Judicial District of Minnesota installed 18 videoteleconferencing systems in 17 courthouses throughout northwestern Minnesota. This project (ITV) was the culmination of more than five years of planning and coordination to get the systems funded, installed, and operational. The lessons we learned along the way and our experiences using the systems in court proceedings may be of some benefit to those of you considering such a large-scale project.
The ITV project was necessitated by the geography of the Ninth Judicial District, which sits in the northwestern corner of Minnesota. The district is bordered on the north by Canada and on the west by North Dakota. It is 25,679 miles square and comprises approximately one-third of the State of Minnesota. It is larger than Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island combined.
This area is staffed by 22 district court judges who hear all trial court matters. Four of the counties have no resident judge but are serviced by judges from neighboring counties. A few of the larger counties are staffed by more than one resident judge.
Judges and staff members were spending inordinate amounts of time traveling throughout the district in order to conduct court. A review of 1995 data showed that three judges in the northwestern corner of the district spent a total 32 weeks each year driving between courthouses. Moreover, the extreme winters of northern Minnesota could make even the easiest trip to a neighboring county impossible with little notice.
In the early 1990s, three judges from the district sought funding for a prototype videoteleconferencing project for six counties in the district. The funding was denied because of the cost of equipment and communications services and a lack of broad support for the concept in the state legislature.
This situation changed in the mid-1990s, as the state developed more sophisticated data systems. Improved communications were needed, and a wide-area T-1 network was installed throughout the state. After the Department of Human Resources (DHS) became interested in videoteleconferencing, the state installed videoteleconferencing switching equipment on the existing T-1 network. When we resubmitted the judicial ITV project to the legislature in 1997, we estimated that installation in all 17 counties would cost $741,000. The funding was approved just as the cost of ITV equipment declined, so we were able to purchase an additional maintenance contract for all 17 counties and still have money left over.
The ITV equipment has been installed in courtrooms, hearing rooms, or conference rooms throughout the counties, and each video site is equipped with a PictureTel Venue 2000 model 50 codec. The codec is the PC platform that runs proprietary software and controls all of the other system components.
All sites are equipped with remote-controlled cameras and a combination of television monitors that range in size from the 3-inch LCD monitors used by system operators to the 40-inch display monitors. (These monitors are often mounted to the ceiling, minimizing tangled cables and freeing up floor space.)
The simplest sites use one or two desktop microphones, and the most complex have ceiling-mounted omnidirectional and "shotgun" microphones. All systems implement automatic gain control and noise suppression, either mechanically or via software. Each site also has a document camera, either a desktop unit or installed in the ceiling, directly over a conference table.
The cost of each installation totaled between $30,000 and $48,000, depending upon the particular configuration. We will add a computer and fax machine to each site in the near future.
The Ninth Judicial District ITV project is unique in two respects. First, we installed our systems in unconventional locations. Most of our systems are in full-sized courtrooms or hearing rooms, which are functionally more complex than the typical boardroom or classroom environment where videoteleconferencing has become commonplace. Second, unlike most court systems that use videoteleconferencing primarily for criminal arraignment proceedings, we target our use at civil matters.
Today, we have used ITV for civil commitments, domestic and harassment hearings, conciliation court, post-decree family matters, probate, appellate hearings, and meetings.
Prior to the initiation of the Ninth District ITV project, several judges had been using DHS’s videoteleconferencing systems to conduct hearings involving persons committed with chemical dependence, mental illness, or mental disabilities. The Ninth District commits people to three different regional treatment centers (RTCs), depending upon the county of residence of the patient. Of these three regional treatment centers, only one is within the Ninth District. Before videoconferencing was available, the judge and court reporter often traveled up to 200 miles for commitment hearings. The alternative was for the sheriff to transport the patient to the courthouse, which required that nurses, social service personnel, psychiatrists, and other witnesses from the RTC also appear at the courthouse. Since the advent of the ITV system in all 17 counties, most hearings are now done by ITV.
The benefits include less travel, less cost, and more productive time. Patients also have less anxiety when they needn’t travel back and forth to hearings. We have arranged with the RTCs to hold hearings on a particular day and time each month, which allows for more efficiency and less down time for all people participating in the hearing.
Domestic Abuse and Harassment
ITV allows us to give faster and better service to the unchambered counties of the district. It also gives us the ability to separate the participants, if necessary. We require that a deputy be available at all domestic abuse hearings, which reduces delay in the hearings and enhances the safety of the parties, the judge, and others who may be in attendance.
Conciliation or Small Claims Court
In Minnesota, conciliation or small claims court is not a court of record. The court has jurisdiction up to $7,500. Lawyers are not allowed to participate without permission of the court and must comply with any restrictions the court requires. An aggrieved party may appeal the decision in conciliation court and have a trial de novo. Because many counties have only one judge, conciliation court appeals created an inefficiency in our system. The judge who made the initial decision could not hear the appeal, which meant a judge from outside the county would have to hold the trial de novo. This often resulted in another day lost to travel. With the use of ITV, the local judge hears not the initial matter but the appeal. This adds to the efficiency of the judges, and allows appeals to be heard on a timely basis.
For conciliation court cases, notice is sent to court participants that their matters will be heard via ITV. We also require that parties submit all documents they intend to use at least one day prior to the hearing. With the use of ITV, the parties are much better prepared. Many of them bring notebooks and have written out their evidence.
Post-Decree Family Matters
The Minnesota Family Court Rules provide that interim support, maintenance, and custody orders will be heard by affidavit only. The rules further provide that all post-decree motions, except for change of custody, must be heard by affidavit. Custody motions are divided into two parts. The first is an initial hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant an evidentiary hearing. The initial hearing is heard on affidavits. Because all of these matters are done by affidavit and memorandum, they are easily heard via ITV.
Most of the lawyers in northwest Minnesota practice in a number of counties. Prior to the installation of ITV, continuances and delays were common, because lawyers could not be in two places at once. With the use of ITV, they can usually meet scheduled times and dates without changes or delays.
Although we have attempted to eliminate all probate hearings except for contested matters, we still have lawyers who wish to make appearances. These hearings easily adapt to ITV.
The Minnesota Supreme Court requires that the courts use certified interpreters for litigants with language barriers and/or hearing impairments. Most interpreters are located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, which is between 120 and 350 miles from the various county seats in the Ninth District. Through the use of ITV, we can now make these interpreters available for language interpretation and/or sign language in real time.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals is an error-correcting court and now hears arguments via ITV from November 1 to May 1 of each year. This experiment has gone well. Lawyers can save between six and 12 hours of travel time for an appellate hearing that will typically last 40 minutes, and clients save a considerable amount on attorney fees and expenses.
Each judicial district has district administration offices that are in charge of administering the district, educating local court administrators, and implementing state policy. The administration offices for the Ninth District are located in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Prior to the advent of ITV, local court administrators were required to travel to Bemidji for almost all training. One-on-one individual training also required the trainer or education administrator to travel to other counties. With the addition of computers and faxes at the ITV sites, the court trainer can work with a number of court personnel in various counties throughout the district without ever leaving the office.
On July 1, 1999, the state of Minnesota implemented a child support magistrate system in which magistrates hear initial child support matters, modifications of child support, and determinations of arrearages. In the Ninth District, up to 250 hearings are heard per year in any given county. Using ITV, magistrates no longer travel; we estimate savings between $20,000 and $30,000 for driving time and mileage per year.
District judges presently meet on a quarterly basis, but we found it impossible to schedule committee meetings more often. With the use of ITV, committees can meet monthly, without travel; and most judges can attend, especially if the meetings are scheduled late in the afternoon. This also allows us more time during our general meetings.
The ITV site is available to all county agencies and to agencies that participate through the State Department of Administration (collaboration partners). Both DHS and the Department of Health hold meetings and education sessions via ITV. County boards, county engineers, and others can participate in committee meetings and/or education programs through ITV, again saving time and money.
We have had very few problems with equipment operation. On occasion, the T-l communications lines balk, but these problems normally are resolved within ten minutes.
Our system is not dial-up; we use dedicated communications lines and switching equipment. Therefore, conferences must be reserved through another state administrative agency. This can be very cumbersome, and we are aware that moving environment, such as ISDN, would mean initiating conferences without prior coordination.
Hearings that involve multiple documents or documents with multiple pages are very difficult to conduct via ITV. Each ITV site has a document camera, but I have not found them suitable for these situations. I us a fax machine to transmit readable copies. Additional training could make the document camera more advantageous, but we have not yet reached that point with our system.
We ordered a minimum of two monitors for every courtroom, hearing room, and conference room hosting an ITV site. One monitor displays the image from the far end of the room; the other displays the image from the other site, giving each site control of its own camera. Due to the configuration of some of the rooms, it is absolutely necessary to have two monitors. This is generally not true of conference rooms, especially with picture-in-picture capabilities. I believe I could easily get by with one monitor with picture-in-picture.
The National Center for State Courts has just completed an assessment of our ITV project. One of the findings was that the more a person participated in hearings via ITV, the more favorable their opinion was of ITV. The assessment also found that only 20 percent utilization resulted in a saving in travel expenses; 25 percent use by the courts and 75 percent use by other agencies over a period of five years could save more in travel expenses than the system originally cost. n
Dennis J. Murphy is Assistant Chief Judge of the Ninth Judicial District, District Court of Minnesota. He wishes to acknowledge the persistence of fellow judge Larry G. Jorgenson, and the insistence of district administrator D.J. Hanson, in going forward with this project. The project would never have been completed without the knowledge and technical assistance of former law clerk Mark Kozak of Park City, Utah.