Technology in the Courts: Perspectives from the New York City Judiciary

The City Bar has conducted an online survey of members of the judiciary serving in all five counties of the Criminal Term of the New York State Supreme Court and in the New York City Criminal Court to explore their views on the use of everyday technology to improve efficiency in criminal litigation.

The survey, by the City Bar’s Criminal Justice Operations Committee, probed judges’ perspectives by asking whether particular technologies that exist today were utilized in their court parts and, regardless of the answer, whether those technologies were or would be beneficial in their view.

A report on the survey shows that, in general, judges favorably viewed technological tools as beneficial to the litigation process.

With assistance from the New York State Unified Court System’s Office of Court Administration, the Committee distributed the survey to all 193 judges hearing criminal cases in Supreme Court and Criminal Court in New York City, and received 74 responses, representing a participation rate of 38.3%. The survey polled judges on their use of five categories of technology, including: Email; Electronically Displayed Evidence and Jury Charge; Electronic Submissions, Decisions, and Transcripts; Video Conferencing; and Electronic Filing.

The survey revealed that two-thirds of participants favored email as a means to communicate with parties, emphasizing “efficiency” and that “it helps to keep the lines of communications open.” The minority in opposition expressed concern about the potential for improper ex parte communications and the difficulty of having complicated substantive discussions via email.

Participants were also “overwhelmingly in favor of permitting parties to present evidence electronically,” citing the benefits to jurors, ease of presentation, and efficiency. Nearly seventy-five percent said that they allow parties to present paper evidence by electronic means on overhead screens or computer monitors with the assistance of document management software. While one-quarter of participants said they do not allow evidence to be presented electronically, the comments revealed that the reason was often due to a “lack of equipment.” One participant noted that electronic display is standard in federal courts. Another said that this is a “CSI world and jurors expect as much technology as possible.” Another succinctly commented that electronic display is “[b]etter for [the parties], [e]asier for us, better for jurors!”

Most participants reported that they do not encourage digital (e.g., PDF) courtesy copies of written submissions and do not issue decisions electronically, yet few expressed strong opposition to these ideas. Similarly, while only one-third of the participants reported using digital transcripts, over half favored a digital format option, with many touting speed and efficiency as its virtues. Some questioned whether digital transcripts were actually uniformly available.

The survey also revealed that “approximately half of the survey participants have allowed a defendant, witness, or attorney to appear remotely by video conference.” The comments in favor again enthusiastically emphasized efficiency. As one participant stated, “New York should catch up to the rest of the nation.” However, “many participants expressed real concerns about Constitutional implications—the right to counsel, due process, and the right to confrontation. Many also noted that the equipment was not consistently reliable and reported setup challenges as well.

Lastly, participants were surveyed on their opinions regarding electronic filing. Most participants “favored establishing a uniform electronic filing and management system, like the one used in federal district courts. One-third expressed no view.” Some participants commented that this would “eliminate the need to decipher handwritten notes by other judges,” and another summarized, “We are in the 21st Century.”

Based on the survey’s findings and participants’ freeform comments and suggestions, the Committee made the following recommendations representing ways in which existing technology can be leveraged to improve efficiency in criminal litigation:

  • Expand the use of email to manage cases
  • Update courtroom audiovisual equipment
  • Improve technical support and equipment for video conferencing
  • Provide case note management and file-sharing software
  • Standardize court reporter services
  • Implement an electronic case filing and management system
  • Encourage electronic submissions and decisions as courtesy copies
  • Create a forum for peer learning

The report concludes that “everyday technology improves efficiency in criminal litigation, and its broader use portends significant advantages. Paper waste can be substantially reduced, documents are rarely if ever lost, and the process is expedited. Perhaps more importantly, the airing of legal issues, the depth of case presentation, and a judge’s ability to rule become more effective, efficient, and thoughtful. Judges, court staff, lawyers, defendants, and jurors all are better positioned to meaningfully fulfill their respective roles.

The full survey report can be read here: