Virtually every federal courtroom has an evidence presentation system that integrates video displays, computer inputs, digital document cameras, audiovisual (AV) distribution, and an AV input switching control. While some courtrooms use portable evidence presentation systems, many others, including the majority of our courtrooms, now have permanent systems installed. These systems allow attorneys to use a device (like a notebook computer or tablet), together with the court’s digital document camera, to present evidence simultaneously to everyone in the courtroom through a system of liquid crystal displays.
Even though we now provide all of this technology and it is readily available, attorneys still need first to obtain permission to use it from the trial judge. While many judges provide a blanket authorization to use the systems in their initial scheduling or pretrial order, other judges require a specific written motion, requiring the attorney to justify the need for use of the technology. An attorney anticipating a need to use an evidence system for a motion, hearing, or trial should determine, far in advance, whether permission is already given or needs to be obtained.
Although the evidence presentation systems are used most often for hearings or trials, consider whether you can use our technology for other aspects of your case. For example, attorneys have used our technology to allow a person at a remote location to participate in the proceedings via a videoconference. By using a web-based videoconference program, a laptop computer, and a portable WiFi hotspot, an attorney can stream in the outside party, and once connected to the evidence presentation system, everyone in the courtroom can see and hear the outside party. The rule again, however, is to get permission from the trial judge first.
Once an attorney has permission to use the system, the attorney should check the court’s website or with the clerk’s office as to whether there are details on the system and its capabilities. For example, at our court’s website, vaed.uscourts.gov, we have a page that lists the available equipment, identifies the process for obtaining permission, outlines the potential uses for the equipment, and provides suggestions for how best to proceed. Check with your court before you retain a vendor who will charge you for the equipment that we already have or that we don’t allow.
After obtaining the judge’s permission and understanding what equipment is available, see if you can attend an orientation where you can “dry test” the system. Although this is not an opportunity to practice your entire opening statement or cross-examination, it can help iron out any connectivity or related issues.
During the orientation, depending on the user’s skill level, I show users how to connect to the system and switch between the video sources such as the document camera and the other party’s computer. Orientation is also a great time to discover whether your computer does not work correctly and to conduct a reconnaissance of the courtroom evidence presentation system. For example, sometimes the presentation cart, with the document camera and control panel, is at the lectern. In other courtrooms, like ours, the document cameras and control panels are on a separate presentation cart, away from the lectern. Orientation is the time to figure this out, rather than as your motion is being called or on the first day of trial.
While we are ready, willing, and able to help you with your courtroom presentation questions, please understand that the systems we have built, or the rules we have established, are based on a courtroom design approved by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The design considers the technology, the physical layout of the room (i.e., line of sight), and funding. Any disruption to the flow of the proceedings has been considered and addressed. So, while you might want to bring in a display that is double the size “so that the jury doesn’t have to strain,” we have already decided, likely with input from the judge, that our displays are appropriate. Put simply, our judges will never allow technology to hinder, disrupt, or jeopardize a proceeding or trial.
Over the years, I have come up with a list of basic things parties should know when they plan to use an evidence presentation system for their motion, hearing, or trial:
- Know the judge. While some judges might not expect you to use technology, others essentially require it.
- Know how to operate a computer. No kidding. I have seen people who do not know how to log on to their computer or who have no idea how to synchronize their computer with external displays. You must know your way around a computer and its operating system. Know the difference between a VGA and HDMI connector.
- On a related note, if you can, bring someone to run your presentation for you or outsource it to one of the many litigation support firms. It is very challenging to run a presentation program like Trial Director or Sanction while you are addressing the court.
- When there is an existing evidence presentation system, do not ask us to change it or add to it. There are many, many reasons why the system is configured the way it is.
- You must be prepared with backup computers, external drives, and peripherals. Furthermore, we recommend that you make your presentation from the computer’s hard drive because it is more reliable. And to prepare for the possibility of a catastrophic computer failure, have paper copies and photos available to be used with the digital document camera.
- Similarly, have a contingency plan in case there is a system failure and/or the trial judge decides to halt any use of technology. While it might be hard to believe, we still provide easels for blowup boards, and you can always use paper.
- Under no circumstances should you ever reconfigure, troubleshoot, disconnect, relocate, or otherwise touch the court’s equipment. One time, an attorney opened the back panel door of one of our presentation carts and proceeded to disconnect and reconfigure the wiring. Needless to say, I informed the judge about the attorney’s actions. That leads us to my next point.
- If you are going to complain about our technology, make unreasonable demands, or interfere with our systems, we will let the judge know. I have done it in the past and will do it again if necessary. When attorneys know I will share their “attitude” about our courtroom systems directly with the judge, they usually become much more reasonable. Indeed, the majority of the bar is extremely appreciative of what the court has provided them. Don’t be the exception.
- Many courts will not provide Internet access due to security and/or budget concerns. Expect to provide your own. Many judges understand the need to share an active web page and its interface, or the attorneys’ need to connect to, and download from, their servers. Again, request permission from your trial judge in advance, and be prepared with your portable WiFi hotspot, understanding that WiFi is not perfect and that you may not be able to attain a strong signal within a courtroom.
- Finally, and this is my favorite, to avoid dating yourself, don’t refer to our evidence presentation system or document camera as “ELMO.” ELMO invented and manufactured the first document camera 20 years ago, but today we use WolfVision digital presenters (document cameras).
Technology has its place in the courtroom. It should never take precedence over the merits of the case. It should never determine whether you win or lose a case. It is a tool to enhance, highlight, and support your argument. When used efficiently and smartly, it is very effective. But it requires advance preparation and contingency planning. We are here to help.